Washington panel considers outlawing community notification of sex offenders

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(The Center Square) – Earlier this year, a decision to house convicted sex offenders in cities such as Enumclaw without notifying the community drew outrage from local residents.

Now, the State Sex Offender Policy Board is considering recommendations to the Legislature that could include making it illegal to notify communities when a sex offender moves into the area on the grounds that such policies undermine public safety.

Created in 2008, the Sex Offender Policy Board is composed of 13 members appointed by Gov. Jay Inslee. Its role is to conduct case reviews of sex offense incidents and conduct projects on sex offender policy issues.

In 2021, the state Legislature enacted a law that calling for “equitable distribution” throughout counties of sex offenders housed in community-based rehabilitation facilities. Earlier this year, residents in Tenino protested plans to place 11 convicted sex offenders housed on McNeil Island in their community, in part due to the lack of communication. As reported by Fox13, local government officials said they were not notified about the plan.

At the request of Community Safety, Justice, & Reentry Committee Chair Roger Goodman and as initially reported by Seattle-based radio talk show host Ari Hoffman, the board is examining potential revisions to sex offender sentencing ranges. They are also examining post-conviction policies.

The proposed revisions have proven controversial nationwide. A group of 35 state attorneys general last year cosigned a letter urging the American Law Institute to reject those amendments to their model penal code. Among those to sign the letter was Washington State Attorney General Bob Ferguson.

According to the draft document, many laws placing restrictions on sex offenders “actually undermine public safety, the exact opposite of what lawmakers and the public so confidently assume they accomplish.”

The document argues that while sex offenses are “distinctively unsettling and injurious,” policies such as sex offender registration, notifying the community of a sex offender’s presence, and restricting where sex offenders can live “do not reduce recidivism rates.”

Instead, the draft proposal calls for “reintegration, social support, stable living, [and] steady employment” to reduce repeat offenses.

In particular, the document states publicly available sex offender registries and community notifications “rarely leads individuals to take meaningful precautions to protect themselves,” adding that they create a “false sense of security and divert attention from more significant sexual dangers, increasing risk to the public.”

The document proposes that “sex offense registries should be reserved exclusively for the use of law enforcement and community notifications should be prohibited.” Additionally, it recommends that all convicted juvenile sex offenders should be removed from the registry.

Further, the recommendations call for a “strong presumption” against GPS monitoring, residency restrictions and limits placed on a convicted sex offender’s internet access.

The proposal drew outrage from several people testifying at the board’s Sept. 21 meeting, including former state legislator Cathy Dahlquist. She told the board that the proposed model penal code changes were “unconscionable” and “directly impacts the safety of survivors and victims.”

Also testifying in opposition to the revisions was Jessica McCoy, who argued that Board Chair Brad Meryhew’s work as a private defense attorney specifically representing those accused of sexual misconduct constitutes a conflict of interest.

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