The Rhode Island legislature is facing a decision that will shape the future of a good portion of its criminal justice system. It must decide whether or not to adopt legislation that will bring the state into compliance with SORNA, the sex offender registration and notification act, which is title 1 of the Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act of 2006 (P.L. 109-248).
State Rep. Peter G. Palumbo (D – Cranston), author of the bill, uses language in his defense of it that encourages the public to believe that every person on the registry, between 400,000 and 700,000 souls, depending on whose numbers you believe, in ages ranging from nine to ninety, and in seriousness ranging from false accusations to misdemeanors to felonies, every one of them, is a predator and virtually certain to repeat a horrible offense that threatens everyone everywhere.
"As long as there is one sex offender out there that we cannot account for, there is the potential for great harm, the potential for another victim," he is reported as saying by WPRI.com (http://www.wpri.com/dpp/news/local_news/state-rep-pushes-new-sex-offender-bill). The word "potential" is used to justify the use of a fear-mongering and unsupported—and unsupportable-- statement.
Children and youth are at much greater risk of ending up on the sex offender registry than they are of being harmed by someone on it. Juveniles comprise up to a third of new registrants to registries across the states and are responsible for over a third of sexual crime against other minors (Crimes Against Children Research Center, University of New Hampshire) and, under this legislation, will be registered on the adult registry, a major reason that many states have rejected SORNA.
95% of sexual crime is committed by those never before convicted of a sexual offense and therefore not on a registry (Sandler, Freeman, and Socia, Does A Watched Pot Boil?) Registered sex offenders account for less than 5% of sexual crime against minors (Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Statistical Briefing Book, 2008). Cases of strangers targeting children and teens are rare; they are molested almost totally by those in their lives with whom they have close and trusting relationships. How can a system that focuses solely on those who are already registered be a useful tool in lowering the rate of sexual crime when those committing the majority of the crime are not on the registry?
Rep. Palumbo also suggests that the state will actually save money by implementing this legislation. “…making one central agency [the R.I. state police] responsible for this process will free up local law enforcement resources and save communities money.” This has not been the experience of other states that have implemented SORNA. In addition to requiring a huge budget over and above federal allotments, states are finding themselves faced with multiple lawsuits from registrants who, by virtue of SORNA, are automatically raised from a low risk level to a high one and are protesting the change in the plea agreements they made at sentencing as well as now finding themselves subject to ex-post facto laws.
This legislation address only individuals who are on the registry. It will have no effect on Rhode Island's rate of sexual offending nor will it leave anything with which to address sexual crime against the much larger population. Is this what Rhode Island wants or deserves?
RSOL promotes the elimination of sexual abuse and the preservation of civil rights for all individuals through the use of effective legislation based on empirical research. We envision sexual offense laws based on equal justice and respect for the dignity of all people, protection from retroactively applied punishment, and the establishment of fact-based laws and policies that protect our communities.