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De-Registering Romeo and Juliet

Modest reform to sex offender laws goes to guv

By Jordan Smith, 6:00PM, Thu. May. 12, 2011

De-Registering Romeo and Juliet

Lawmakers have again approved a bill that would exempt certain offenders from having to register (often for life) on the state's fast-growing sex offender registry. Now the only question is: Will Gov. Rick Perry sign it?

At issue is whether certain youthful offenders, or so-called "Romeo and Juliet" offenders – those involved in a consensual relationship with a person under 17 – should be given a chance to avoid registration and the collateral damage that follows. The bill, which is retroactive, would allow for youthful offenders involved with a person who is at least 15, and not more than four years their junior, a chance to avoid registration, if a court finds that the person poses no threat to public safety.

The state's registry, which contains information on more than 64,000 offenders (as of Jan. 1, according to the Department of Public Safety – though that number is likely higher now, considering that the list grows by roughly 100 names per week), has grown like Topsy and presents a dilemma for the state: How can law enforcement (and the public, via the online database) keep track of the most dangerous offenders if every single sex offender, without any real differentiation, is included on the list? And how do local police departments pay for monitoring thousands of individuals, most of whom do not pose a danger to the public? Moreover, by pillorying thousands of offenders, how much more likely are we making it that they'll be unable to find a place to live and to work and therefore become more likely to re-offend? (Interestingly, most sex offender recidivism does not involve sex crimes.)

The Romeo and Juliet bill that passed yesterday (May 10) – Senate Bill 198, by Dallas Dem Sen. Royce West – is the second such bill to get the nod from lawmakers. In 2009, lawmakers approved a similar measure, by Rep. Todd Smith, R-Euless, but the bill was vetoed by Perry. Whether Perry will sign it this time is unclear, though the conventional wisdom is that the change made to the bill this time around – upping to 15 the minimum age of a "victim" – will be amenable to the Guv. And that's encouraging when you consider that in the current fiscal climate, signing the bill would provide some help for local law enforcement agencies who are tasked with tracking and monitoring thousands of offenders without financial help from the state.

Indeed, while the state's budget woes hang like a dark cloud over most everything, the looming deficit may have created a thin silver line over the sex offender law reform debate: It appears that the state will not implement the "new" federal sex offender law, known as the Adam Walsh Act, which would have caused the registry to grow even more – and would include the mandatory addition of juvenile offenders – and would, according to estimates from the Justice Policy Institute, have cost the state nearly $39 million to implement. Instead, the state has detached itself from that federal law except as it relates to the de-registration process: Offenders in Texas seeking to get off the list would fall into one of two classes of offenses (Tier I or Tier II offenses, as set out by the federal law) and would have to live on the list for the minimum amount of time required by federal law. Practically speaking, this means that an offender convicted of possession of child pornography could have an opportunity to petition to de-register after being on the list for 15 years (in Texas such a conviction currently requires lifetime registration); a person convicted for indecency with a child (ages 13-17) by contact would be allowed to petition for de-registration after 25 years on the registry (this offense also currently requires lifetime registration). (Suitability for de-registration would also depend on other factors – including not having been convicted of any other sex offense and having successfully completed a treatment program. A complete list of the classification of offenses and minimum registration requirements can be found here.)

The ability of individuals to successfully petition to be removed from the list had been held up pending a decision as to whether Texas would jump on the AWA bandwagon – and it is a decidedly small stage: although the law passed in 2006, only several states have actually signed on. States have been hesitant to adopt the law because of it's one-size-fits-all nature – which runs counter to the growing body of research related to the efficacy of registries, the collateral damage they cause, and the dangers of recidivism – and because it is an extremely costly unfunded mandate. (In the interim, however, the Council on Sex Offender Treatment had been working diligently to devise a system for the evaluation of individual offenders for the purpose of deciding whether to let them off the list. That process is complete and the CSOT expects to begin reviewing it's first applications later this year.)

Mary Sue Molnar, founder of the group Texas Voices, which advocates for reforming sex offender laws, is pleased that West's bill has passed – but knows there is still a lot more work to do to reform the system. "It's a good start at addressing a huge, over-blown, ineffective registry system [that] causes more harm than good," she wrote in an email.

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