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Washington Governor to Take New Look at Sex Offender Identity Disclosure

On August 3, Washington governor Christine Gregoire visited Prosser as part of a two-day tour of the state. One of the questions posed to Governor Gregoire in Prosser concerned her stance on a state law policy recently revealed by a new government report.

A performance report conducted by the state auditor’s office was released just prior to the governor’s visit, and its main focus was sex offenders in child care, foster care and school settings. According to data in the report, 28 registered sex offenders lived in state regulated or subsidized child care settings during the past decade. A handful of the offenders even worked at in-home daycares, and one was a custodian at a high school for the entire ten years.

Over that entire time period, no instances of improper sexual conduct involving the 28 sex offenders were reported. However, since being discovered, all the sex offenders who had been working at schools or daycares have been removed from the job.

After the issue was uncovered, media outlets began to ask which daycares or schools had had a sex offender employee. But, the state declined to release this information. According to the Washington State Department of Social and Health Services, the state could not legally publicize this information because doing so would jeopardize the identity of kids at the facilities who are DSHS clients.

Yet, seemingly without regard for the real world consequences, some are calling for a change in the state law that prohibits the disclosure of which daycares or schools had employed a sex offender. During Governor Gregoire’s visit to Prosser, KEPR-TV asked whether state law “should be changed in order to know if a sex offender has worked in a preschool or daycare before.”

The governor made no direct promises – but reportedly said to KEPR-TV that “we may need to take a look at that.”

In Washington, and across the country, the onerous restrictions placed on sex offenders indeed may need to be looked at, although not to distance them further from reason. Many members of the public and the media jump into high gear every time the word “sex offender” is bandied about. But, with all the sex offender alerts, lists and restrictions, it is getting extremely difficult to separate out those who are truly dangerous from the vast majority of registered sex offenders who have no predatory inclinations.

While the recent state report found 28 sex offenders working in settings that may harbor children, it is unclear how many were the lowest risk offenders, Level I. Many Level I offenders must register simply for having consensual sex with a younger partner, and pose no risk to children. Further complicating matters is the fact that there is no objective leveling standard in place for setting the threat level of sex offenders who move in from another state.

Sex offender registration and notification laws (referred to generally as “SORN laws”) now exist in every state. They were first enacted with the stated purpose of reducing sex offender recidivism. It was thought that SORN laws would enable more efficient law enforcement supervision of the offenders most likely to commit a new crime, and would also help potential victims protect themselves by avoiding known nearby sex offenders.

However, empirical evidence is increasingly suggesting that SORN laws as they currently exist are having the opposite of their intended effect: publically revealing the identity and criminal history of an offender after release from prison seems to highly increase the likelihood of a return to crime. When registration requirements prevent offenders from finding a home, getting a job or furthering their education, it comes as little surprise that recidivism is likely.

Unless sex offender registration is specifically targeted, it appears to do more harm than good. In Washington, Level II and III sex offenders are already prohibited from living within 880 feet of any school or daycare center. Their status as offenders is listed publically, and neighbors and employers are notified of it. At this point, it may be time to ask whether more notifications will actually help potential victims, or will simply dilute the attention of parents and other guardians and force offenders with no other options back into crime.

Whatever action the governor or other Washington politicians take in response to the performance report audit, having to register as a sex offender can be highly disruptive to an otherwise productive life. If you are facing charges for a sex crime, you need an experienced, ethical and dedicated defense attorney to give you the best odds a future unencumbered by the modern-day Scarlet Letter of sex offender status.

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