13 months ago, almost to the very date, State Rep. and co-chair of the Judiciary Committee Mike Lawlor gave an interview in which he touted the need for sensible reforms to the sex offender registry. I was buoyed by it and a little hopeful. After all, who can not see the benefits of a tiered sex offender registry? Still, back then, I noted some suspicion, given the political climate, that such changes would ever come to fruition.
So, it was with a sense of deja vu that I read this editorial in the Courant last week from Mike Lawlor, entitled “Sex Offender Registry Riddled With Flaws”. In it, Lawlor makes some of the same observations he made over a year ago and expresses the same hope and optimism. He also makes the same arguments in favor of the registry and some new ones:
First, many true sex offenders are avoiding the registry altogether by “charge bargaining” in our courts. Current law requires sex offender registration only for convictions under certain specific statutes, such as first-degree sexual assault. Skilled defense attorneys know this and will agree to have their clients plead guilty and even accept a prison sentence in exchange for a prosecutor’s agreement to have them plead to charges that do not require registration.
The law should be changed to allow a Sex Offender Risk Assessment Board to look beyond the specific crime of conviction and instead classify a convicted felon as a sex offender based upon the underlying facts, including the police reports and prior history of the offender. Minnesota and other states have such a procedure, including due process protections, and the constitutionality has been successfully tested in the courts.
I don’t know what other registries he’s talking about that employ this procedure or what the challenges have been, but it strikes me as rather problematic.
The part about charge bargaining seems misguided and really another attack at the prosecutors and defense attorneys who are in the trenches every day.
Frankly, there’s one primary reason why this “charge bargaining” occurs (I firmly believe that Lawlor just made up that term. I haven’t heard anyone use it. Have you?): because almost every case is resolved through plea bargaining and one central tenet of bargaining is “you give something, you get something”.
Why would plea bargaining to an offense that does not have a sexual assault component be attractive to both the State and the defense? Because the State gets a conviction. The defendant, on the other hand, gets the opportunity to actually rehabilitate himself and reintegrate himself into society upon release without the stigma of being a sex offender and the avalanche of problems that come with it. If society hadn’t made sex offenders the object of their hatred and fear, this may not be happening with “such frequency”. After all, if after your release from prison, you’re going to be denied employment and a place to stay, if you’re going to be required to send a letter confirming your transient residence every 90 days, if you’re going to be denied access to parks, libraries, movie theaters, bus stops, [insert any conceivable place children can go or gather], be on tenterhooks for the rest of your life…well you can imagine why people aren’t lining up in front of that booth.
I also question his claim that this “charge bargaining” is happening with increasing frequency. My experience (limited as it is) has been that prosecutors are loathe to plea bargaing away from sex offenses and do so only in the rarest of circumstances. In fact, judges are more trigger-happy with sex offense sentences (90 years!) and terms of probation. Sex offenders are less and less likely to slip under any crack these days and there’s a reason for that. That reason is not “charge bargaining”.
It’s been a year now, and there hasn’t been any progress. I remember reading something about a task force or some such thing being formed and I believe they actually me to consider the Risk Assessment Board. What has come of it remains a mystery to me. Will it be another year before there is actual movement? I hope not.