Timesargus.com (Vermont) : Issues of cost, content arise over state's sex offender registry.
MONTPELIER – Under the provisions of a new federal act, Vermont stands to lose up to $35,000 in government funding if it doesn't expand its Internet sex offender registry. But officials say the changeover would add about 2,000 new names to the list – and cost upwards of $3 million to implement.
The new act has also spawned a philosophical debate about which offenders belong on the publicly accessible Internet sex offender registry. "I think it's a good idea to have a uniform system, and I support the idea in principle," said Sen. Richard Sears, D-Bennington, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee. "But we believe this thing is a little more complex than what first met the eye, and we're going to have to take a hard look at whether we should comply, given that it may cost millions to do so."
Vermont has about 2,400 sex offenders on its statewide registry, but only about 400 meet the threshold required to land on the more public Internet registry. Under the Adam Walsh Act, all 2,400 offenders would likely appear online, because federal guidelines use an "offense-based" classification system to assess risk into a three-tier hierarchy.
Anyone convicted of those crimes – even non-contact mis-demeanors – would appear on the registry for anywhere from 15 years to life, depending on the offense. Vermont, conversely, uses a "risk-based" system that relies on a number of different criteria. And lawmakers and policy makers have thus far reserved the Internet registry for only the more serious offenders.
"I think the committee is in agreement that we ought to expand the Internet registry, but I think it's going to be up to the Legislature, the administration, and perhaps ultimately the courts to decide whether we can comply with this federal act," Sears said.
The Vermont Department of State's Attorneys and the office of the Defender General have said an expanded registry could lead to millions of dollars in additional legal costs for the state, mainly because offenders would prove less amenable to plea deals if the conviction meant a slot on the Internet sex offender registry.
The office of the Defender General estimated it would need an additional $1.8 million if the new registry standards were enacted. The Department of State's Attorneys pegged first-year costs at more than a half-million dollars. An official from the Department of Public Safety, which oversees the registry, said the state is capable of meeting the new federal requirements, but that would necessitate two additional employees and new computer software, estimated to cost a total of $350,000 in the first year.
Juvenile offenders as young as 14 also would qualify for the Internet registry for extreme offenses.
"The question ought to be what makes sense for Vermont and how far do we go?" Sears said. "Should people who had a statutory rape conviction be on there for life? Or someone who committed a non-contact offense? These are some of the issues we need to think about.