‘Silent’ offender registry offers public protections

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As the legislative session rushes to a close, the Criminal Justice Committee still has time to amend laws controlling the state’s public Sex Offender Registry. Protecting the public by allowing police access to a silent registry must be part of committee considerations.

The long-debated challenge of amending Maine sex offender registration laws gained new urgency last week, as a convicted sex offender who successfully petitioned to be removed from the registry was arrested Tuesday and charged with possessing child porn. The ability for certain offenders to petition for removal was enacted as law in September.

Larry Smart of Mexico had been listed on the registry until last October for his 1988 conviction in Oxford County of gross sexual misconduct, a violent crime against a victim younger than 14. At the time of the offense, Smart was 42 years old, so we’re not talking about some teenage relationship gone wrong. We’re talking about a convicted child predator who now stands accused of re-offending, and who has already admitted to police who served the search warrant at his home that he knew he was “going to get into some serious trouble for what (he) had been doing.”

Police removed several videos from Smart’s home, including one depicting two 5-year-old boys having sex.

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Police also believe Smart is connected to another child porn case in Mexico in which a teenage boy has been charged with possession of porn stored on a computer that the teen says was provided to him by Smart.

Law enforcement officials have appeared before the Criminal Justice Committee a number of times to argue for Maine to continue to allow offenders to petition for removal from the public Sex Offender Registry, as Smart has done, but that police be permitted to maintain a list of all offenders ever listed on the registry, even if their names are no longer publicly listed. This seems a reasonable move, for police to be aware of convicted sex offenders in their jurisdictions.

Such a “silent” registry exists in Connecticut, which is now the subject of a Connecticut Supreme Court case, but the court is only ruling on whether the public should be aware of how and why offenders are listed. It is not deciding whether a “silent” registry that is available only to law enforcement and court officers is appropriate, just whether the process to require offenders to register should be public.

In Maine, that process is already public in great detail, so the public here is well-informed.

In the Smart case, Mexico police were aware of his offender status even after he was removed from the registry because he had been coming into the police station to register for several years, and Mexico is a small town where such visits are remembered by officers. In larger cities in Maine where there are more offenders, that’s not always the case and, as Auburn’s Deputy Chief Jason Moen said, once these offenders are off the registry, they’re “off.” Gone.

The Criminal Justice Committee has a bill before it to consider expanding the period that would allow certain offenders to petition for removal. That period now extends between 1982 and 1992, and the committee would consider expanding it from 1982 to 1999, to allow offenders convicted before the registry was created to petition for removal.

If the committee moves in that direction, it should do so while also considering moving these petitioners to a silent registry. That balance provides police information they need about convicted offenders in their communities, while shielding pre-registry offenders from what they may perceive to be unfair Internet scrutiny.

In 2003, when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled photos and criminal backgrounds of convicted sex offenders may be posted online, Justice Anthony Kennedy, in ruling Megan’s Law was not punitive, wrote: “The purpose and the principal effect of notification are to inform the public for its own safety, not to humiliate the offender.”

In amending Maine’s registration requirements, lawmakers must remember the public deserves that guarantee.

editorialboard@sunjournal.com

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