Violent offenders will need to self-register — and annually re-register for a decade — under a bill signed Wednesday by Gov. John Kasich that will establish a database of Ohio’s released murderers and kidnappers.
Advocates say such a database could have spared the life of Sierah Joughin, a University of Toledo junior kidnapped and killed in 2016. The bill’s critics say the database would create obstacles for those re-entering society after serving a prison sentence.
The Ohio House voted unanimously to approve the legislation. The bill passed the Senate by a 24-3 vote.
“Sierah’s death was a tragic situation that could have been prevented with the right information on the violent offender’s release from prison,” said Rep. Niraj Antani, R-Miamisburg, who is one of many bill co-sponsors. “Just as the public has a right to know to know on the status of sex offenders, citizens should know about offenders with an extremely violent past.”
Joughin was killed in rural Fulton County — west of Toledo, about half-way between Lake Erie and the Indiana border — and was found three days after she was last seen bicycling near her home. James Worley, who was convicted of kidnapping and aggravated murder in 20-year-old Joughin’s death, had been convicted previously of abducting another female bicyclist.
“This bill will prevent other tragedies like Sierah’s from occurring,” Antani said.
First introduced in the Senate by Sen. Randy Gardner, R-Bowling Green, the legislation would require the Ohio Attorney General to create and maintain a registry keeping track of people convicted of violent crimes such as murder and abduction. Violent offenders would have to register their address and other information once released from prison.
That information could then be used to make informed decisions about where to live, for example.
“An example would be this: Your 19-year-old daughter is moving to a new city to go to college and is looking at apartments,” Gardner said in Senate Judiciary Committee testimony. “She decides on one, but you would like to know if anyone who would be living across the hall from her has a violent felony record. You would like to know. It seems to be a reasonable, fair question to ask. Today, in Ohio, that information is not available.”
The database isn’t without restrictions. In fact, the entirety of the database would be for the exclusive use of law enforcement in investigations. However, the public would be able to access portions of the information from a registry at the county sheriff’s office, though the database would not be accessible online, unlike the sexual offender registry.
Nor is the database and its registration requirement without detractors. The Office of the Ohio Public Defender, for instance, argues that making failure to annually register for the database a fifth-degree felony could exacerbate prison overcrowding. Moreover, the office argues there is no evidence the database would prevent future tragedies.
“The information available to the public does not include context for each person who is included,” said Timothy Young, the state public defender, in his testimony. “Regardless of the circumstances surrounding an individual’s admission to the database, being on the list will cause the public to assume those people should be feared and loathed.”
That could cause loss of employment and housing opportunities, punishing the offender and their family, Young said.
“Instead of allowing individuals to move past their mistakes and become productive members of society, this bill creates new requirements that may lead to additional criminal convictions and additional prison time,” Young later said. “Ohio is not made better by making it impossible for capable people to obtain adequate housing and good jobs.”
The ACLU of Ohio also opposed the bill. The Buckeye Sheriffs’ Association, Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine and Joughin’s family all supported the bill.
In a letter of support for the bill, Attorney General Mike DeWine said the database would be similar to the arson registry already in place, and would put Ohio in the company of Florida, Montana, Oklahoma, Indiana, Illinois and Kansas, which have similar databases for convicted felons.
DeWine, the governor-elect, estimates the AG’s office could incorporate a violent offender database within the existing sex offender registry, costing about $350,000 to establish and “a subsequent annual cost of approximately $175,000, plus personnel costs.”
The cost would be worth the benefit, DeWine argues, because “recidivism data compiled by the Department of Justice show that 71.3 percent of inmates released from prison after serving time for a violent offense have been arrested for a new crime within five years.”
But a professor from the University of Toledo argued DeWine hadn’t presented the full picture to lawmakers.
“He fails to note that these arrests are for ‘any offense,’ not violent offenses,” Dr. Renee Heberle, a political science professor, said in her testimony. “In fact, the re-arrest rate of those originally convicted of homicide for another homicide is 2.1 percent, according to the very study Mr. DeWine refers to in his testimony.”
“While we are all horrified by the kidnapping and brutal murder of Sierah Joughin and grieve her death, I maintain that criminal justice policy should be evidence-based, not written as a fear-based reaction to individual tragedies,” Heberle said.
Proponents like DeWine argue Joughin’s death is not an individual tragedy, noting “Ohio has far too many stories like these.”
Among them, Muhammad Shabazz Ali, of Dayton, is spending the remainder of his life in prison without the possibility of parole after pleading guilty to the August 2016 killing of three people. Ali — who police and court reports indicate used to be named Robert W. Ford Jr. — served more than 20 years in prison for voluntary manslaughter after he was convicted of killing his pregnant girlfriend in 1988.
In another case, a jury found Deandre Dixon, of Dayton, guilty on all nine charges he faced in the December 2016 killing of Gregory Moses. Montgomery County Common Pleas Court Judge Erik Blaine sentenced Dixon to 15 years to life for murder plus three years apiece for three gun specifications and another three years for being a repeat violent offender.
The Associated Press and Staff Writer Mark Gokavi contributed reporting.