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Lifetime Sex Offender Registration: Not All Sex Is A Crime

As we approach the 10th Anniversary of Megan’s Law on January 21, 2006, the State Senate and Assembly are making haste to ensure that convicted sex offenders are not dropped from the sex offender registry established by this law. As part of this effort, the Senate passed a bill this week that would expand the current ten year rule for registering as a sex offender. The new proposal would require lifetime registration for all sex offenders --regardless of risk level -- with the State Division of Criminal Justice Services. I was one of three Senators who voted against the legislation (S.6019), and I am compelled to discuss my reasons for opposing the bill. Otherwise, my position may be wrongfully construed as demonstrating support for sexual predators. Make no mistake about it, I share my colleagues’ revulsion for individuals who sexually violate others, especially when the victims of these insidious sex crimes are children and young adults. But the Senate proposal for a sex offender registry, while seeking to protect the public, would require all offenders to register for life. In fact, this legislation places them in the same high-risk registry pool, as those who are violent sexual predators. The punishment should fit the crime, but clearly the proposed scheme for sex offender registration does not. The crimes that may lead an individual to become registered as a Level 1 offender are often minimal offenses. The types of conduct that could lead to a Level 1 designation include, but are not limited to, acts of consensual sex between teenagers when one is 21 years of age or older and the other is under age 17, acts of lewdness (ie: flashing), as well as misdemeanor crimes of sexual misconduct and forcible touching, involving squeezing, grabbing or pinching. The severity of the crimes committed by Level 1 offenders and Level 2 or Level 3 offenders are not the same. Therefore, their offenses should not be subject to the same stringent registration requirements. Proponents of the bill contend that Level 1 offenders would be able to petition for relief after they have been registered for 20 years. However, the ability to petition for relief is an arduous process and does not guarantee that they would be freed from lifetime registration. In the meantime, during the course of that 20 year period following a misdemeanor conviction of sexual misconduct, for example, an offender could be denied public housing, a college loan, professional licensure and other opportunities that are open to all other citizens. Research shows that Level 1 offenders have a greater chance of rehabilitation, a low risk of recidivism, and that they could benefit from proper treatment and alternative punishment. I urge legislative leaders and the Governor to return to the negotiating table to re-think this fatally flawed concept before approving a punitive measure that imposes a 20 year sentence and possibly more on to a low-risk population that doesn’t deserve it. The current approach to punishing sex offenders can be compared, in part, to the Rockefeller Drug Laws of the 1970s. The extremely harsh punishment, long sentences -- even for first-time offenders, and the elimination of udicial discretion resulted in the same degree of punishment for first time users and mules as it did for king pins and drug lords. Ultimately, this method of addressing criminal activity becomes as harmful to many people in our society as it does helpful to the victims we want to protect. We should consider adopting the Assembly’s proposal, which would extend the sex offender registry only until 2007. This would give Albany lawmakers an opportunity to develop a more thoughtful and sensible approach to this extremely complex issue. We should not enact a law that could very well end up being a war on sex offenses that is as harmful to another generation of youth as the war on drugs has been to this generation of Americans. Velmanette Montgomery is a member of the New York State Senate representing the 18th District as well as a member on the Senate Committee on Crime Victims, Crime and Correction

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