Concord Monitor: Bill to broaden sex offender list

By Annmarie Timmins, Monitor Staff (original article)

Lawmakers are considering vastly expanding the public sex offender registry to include not only more crimes like some Peeping-Tom incidents and indecent exposures, but also the names of people who’ve victimized adults. The public list now identifies only child molesters.

The proposed legislation, introduced in part to bring New Hampshire in line with federal requirements, would also allow the police to collect more information from offenders, including cell phone numbers, e-mail addresses, online screen names and DNA if it hasn’t already been collected.

“The best predictor of future behavior is past behavior,” Earl Sweeney, assistant commissioner of the state Department of Safety, told lawmakers yesterday. “We hear a lot about people paying their debt to society. But society has a debt to law-abiding people to say we are going to protect you from the non–law-abiding.”

The bill, heard yesterday by the House criminal justice committee, is the work of a bipartisan study committee that met for two years. Its goal was to help the state better evaluate and classify sexual offenders of both children and adults. Soon after the group formed, the federal government passed its own sex-offender registration bill and gave states a choice: Pass something comparable or lose 10 percent of a federal criminal justice grant.

Rep. Cynthia Dokmo, an Amherst Republican and one of the bill’s co-sponsors, told committee members she thinks the study group balanced what the federal authorities passed and what New Hampshire needs.

For example, the proposed legislation, like the federal law, would add some crimes to those already requiring registration, including murder during a rape, violation of privacy with a sexual element and indecent exposure. It would also categorize offenders into tiers, based on the seriousness of their crimes. The tiers would determine how long someone had to appear on the public registry.

And the proposed legislation would, for the first time, make public the names of people who commit serious sexual assaults against other adults. (The state already tracks these offenders, but that list is available only to law enforcement and includes fewer types of offenses.)

But the proposal before state lawmakers differs from the federal model, too: It would not require juveniles as young as 14 to register for life. On the other hand, it would hold other offenders to a lifetime registration who under federal law register for only 25 years.

Sweeney said the legislation would make it easier for the police to register offenders who move to New Hampshire from out of state. “If you have to register in your state, under [this bill] you’d have to register in this state,” he said. Now the police sometimes have to look into the circumstances of out-of-state offenses to determine whether someone must register here.

“This isn’t going to prevent a child from being molested or from a person being injured,” Dokmo said. “This is just one more tool that we as parents and individuals can use. But we still need to be aware of our surroundings and to educate our children.”

The proposal was not without critics yesterday. Two of them, Laurie Peterson and Jeremy Olson of Manchester, founded the group CURSOR, Citizens United to Reevaluate Sex Offender Registries.

Olson believes the proposed state law differs enough from the federal law to raise legal problems. He also faulted the proposal for leaving offenders on the private registry, even after they have been allowed to remove their names from the public list.

Peterson’s complaints were personal. In 1996, her husband, Michael Peterson, was charged with seven counts of felonious sexual assault against a 15-year-old girl following a hotel party. He was convicted in 1997 and now appears on the state’s sex offender registry.

Laurie Peterson has asked lawmakers several times to rewrite the registry law to exclude people like her husband. She renewed that request yesterday, saying it was an embarrassment for the couple’s three young children.

“I beg you to recognize the collateral damage and unintended victims these laws leave in their wake,” she said.

At least one lawmaker on the criminal justice committee sympathized with Peterson yesterday.

Rep. Timothy Robertson, a Keene Democrat, said he was opposed to including “acts of passion,” which he equated with statutory rape. He proposed the example of a young Marine home on leave and set up on a date with someone who looked 20 but was 14. “He shouldn’t be penalized … because she was being patriotic and did things she shouldn’t have,” Robertson said.

Sex offenders must currently register with their local police departments twice a year. Under the new law, that would not change for most offenders. But those in Tier 3, which includes the most serious crimes of murder and rape, would register four times a year.

The cost of registering would go from $34 a year to $50. Local agencies would keep $10 of that, and the rest would go to the state.

The state Department of Safety estimates the proposed legislation would cost the state at least $100,000 the first year to update computer software and add an employee to handle the new registration requirements.

The bill was assigned to a subcommittee yesterday for further discussion.