Two decades after Ohio began labeling sex offenders on a public database and setting restrictions on where they can live, a major overhaul to the law is being proposed that could drop thousands of lower-level offenders off the list
Some critics are even calling for doing away with the registry entirely, saying it’s been an expensive effort with little benefit to the public.
The Ohio Criminal Justice Recodification Committee — tasked with overhauling Ohio’s criminal code — delivered recommendations to the state Senate last month that they say will save local sheriffs’ departments money on administration while ensuring the most serious offenders are still monitored.
The committee, in its notes on the changes, says the goal was to give judges more discretion on whether to put low-level offenders on the registry and, “to prioritize registration for those who remain a danger to the community and not to dilute the registry with offenders who no longer remain a danger to reoffend.”
Ohio currently has more than 17,000 individuals on the sex offender registry. Less than a third are labeled Tier III, the highest tier, meaning they committed crimes like rape of children, sexual battery or murder with sexual motivation.
Opponents of registration have long argued that it does more harm than good to keep those who have served their time from re-integrating into society, and they say the registry unfairly labels people who commit low-level, non-violent crimes.
“It’s the greatest reform we’ve seen in Ohio since registration originally came to be,” Barb Wright, founder of Families and Individuals for Reform, said of the committee’s report.
Residency restrictions, which currently bar sex offenders from living within 1,000 feet of a school or day care, have been a particularly hot button issue and the committee recommends getting rid of them.
“Empirical data shows there is no evidence to support that residency restrictions impact public safety,” the committee’s notes say.
In 2015 state supreme courts in California and Massachusetts struck down local residency laws that cities and counties had imposed. Texas also does not have a statewide residency rule, but numerous cities that enacted limits later withdrew them after challenges from reform groups.
“It poses huge hurdles for offenders, especially in the cities,” Wright said. “There’s literally no place that they can live.”
‘Should we have a registry at all?’
The Ohio ACLU called the recommendations an improvement, but said the committee fell far short of the sweeping reforms promised when it was formed by then Senate President Keith Faber.
“Should we have a registry at all?” said ACLU Chief Lobbyist Gary Daniels. “We should be having that discussion.”
The 24-member, bi-partisan committee included prosecutors, defense attorneys, judges, prison officials and others and met for two years before submitting its final set of recommendations. The plan maintains the current three-tier registration system, but allows for low-level offenders to avoid registration at a judge’s discretion, allows offenders to petition to get off the registry after a set amount of time, and moves some crimes to lower tiers.
The lower tiers have fewer restrictions.
“There’s a lot of consensus that the registry is over-inclusive and then it’s ineffective because of the number of people the sheriffs are required to monitor,” said Jill Beeler, appellate services director for the Ohio Public Defenders Office and a member of the recodification committee.
But some victims’ rights groups see the registry as a necessary piece of law enforcement’s ability to fight sexual violence.
“This is a big deal for them,” said Sgt. Julie Stephens, head of the Montgomery County Sheriff’s Sex Offender Registration and Notification Unit.
Stephens said victims often call her detectives upset when their attacker is no longer on the registry.
More judicial discretion
Under the committee’s recommendations, a judge would determine whether Tier I and Tier II offenders need to register.
For Tier II offenders, a group whose crimes include unlawful sexual conduct with a minor, there would be a presumption in favor of registration for 25 years, according to the committee’s report.
Tier I offenders, whose crime categories include voyeurism, would be subject to registration only if a judge deemed them a danger to the community or likely to reoffend.
Ohio currently has more than 7,000 people on the registry who are labeled Tier I or the equivalent under rules prior to the Adam Walsh Act, the federal law in 2006 (adopted in Ohio in 2007) that directed states to classify sex offenders into three tiers based on the offense they committed.
The committee did not recommend any changes to Tier III offenders, who would have the same lifetime registration requirements as they do now.
But there likely will be fewer Tier III offenders because the committee recommended moving some offenses from Tier III to Tier II.
Sexual battery, felonious assault with sexual motivation, and rape except for the rape of a child would become Tier II offenses under the proposal.
Unlawful sexual conduct with a minor would move from Tier II down to a Tier I offense.
Recidivism rates questioned
One of the main arguments in favor of registration has been that neighbors should be informed of where sex offenders live because they pose a continued risk to society.
But opponents have long demanded evidence that sex offenders re-offend more often than convicted criminals. It’s not clear that they do.
A comprehensive Department of Justice study from the late 1990s found that within three years of prison release, 5.3 percent of sex offenders were rearrested for another sex crime, a higher percentage than the 1.3 percent for non-sex offenders.
But sex offenders were less likely than non-sex offenders to be rearrested for any offense — 43 percent of sex offenders versus 68 percent of non-sex offenders, according to the DOJ report.
The data was collected before Ohio began registering sex offenders in 1997.
The three-year recidivism rate for all Ohio offenders released in 2011 was 27.5 percent, according to the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction. Recidivism rates among sex offenders specifically wasn’t available.
Registration opponents say many of the sex offender arrests are for non-sex crimes, including failure to register.
The recodification committee recommends making a first offense for failure to register a misdemeanor, with only subsequent violations resulting in a felony.
“There are high risk offenders, and I recognize that society wants a way to keep track of those people,” Wright said. “Unfortunately these other low-risk offenders get caught in the snare.”
She said low-level sex offenders can end up committing further crimes down the road because they are unable to find steady housing and employment due to the stigma of registration.
Local law enforcement sees things differently.
“We often see low level offenders re-offending,” Stephens said. Particularly they see Tier I offenders convicted for child pornography committing the same offenses again. And Stephens said those crimes are not victimless, as offenders often use children known to them in their crimes.
“I don’t know how much it changes a person’s behavior, but at least we know where to find them if they have reoffended,” she said. “At least we have some type of control and at least we’re letting people know where they want to be cautious.”
Ability to deregister
Another change would allow sex offenders the ability to petition to get off the registry after a certain amount of time.
The petition could be filed after five years for Tier I offenders, 10 years for Tier II and 15 years for Tier III.
A judge would be able to order a risk assessment of the offender and hold a hearing, if necessary, to decide whether to grant or deny the request.
Wright’s son is on the registry for unlawful sexual conduct with a minor due to what she says was a consensual relationship with a younger girlfriend when they were teens. She sees the ability to deregister as a good thing.
“There are just so many people on the register that don’t belong there,” she said. “(The committee) recognizes the cost and they recognize that there is capacity for rehabilitation.”
Josh and Jennah Strader of Beavercreek also have spoken in favor of reforms.
They were 19 and 14 when she became pregnant with their first child. A decade later they are married with three children, but Josh — now 28 — remains a Tier II registered sex offender because of his conviction for unlawful sexual conduct with a minor.
“If he’s able to get off the registry, it would tremendously change our lives in such a positive way,” Jennah Strader said in December. “He would be able to be the father that he wants to be that he can’t be now.”
Under the proposed changes, Strader would be able to immediately petition a judge to get off the registry.
If the changes are adopted, it will be illegal for anyone age 13 or younger to have sex with an adult over 18, but anyone 14 and up could have consensual sex with an older teen or an adult as long as there is only a five year age difference or less.
“When children of similar age engage in consensual activity, criminally charging youths for such behavior is generally not appropriate,” the committee wrote in its notes. “These changes ensure that the vulnerable are protected, predators are punished, and youthful indiscretions do not carry a lifetime of unwarranted consequences.”
There is no timetable for when the Senate will act on the recommendations, which are included in hundreds of other changes to the Ohio criminal code.
Beeler said the committee has been given no indication if the recommendations will be taken on as a whole or split into smaller bills.