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Published: Monday, 11/24/2003

Sex-crimes data to be available on Web

BY ROBIN ERB
BLADE STAFF WRITER

Ohio is tightening its leash on sex offenders again.

It's making it easier for citizens to find them and police to track them. It's making certain areas - within 1,000 feet from a school - off limits when they're trying to find a place to live.

And it's going to cost them: up to $100 a year.

“Our primary function is to preserve the public peace,” said Bob Cornwell, executive director of the Buckeye State Sheriffs Association. “We're willing to take on the work as long as it's cost-effective.”

Each state has some version of a sex-offender registry under Megan's Law, named after the New Jersey 7-year-old who was raped and killed by a twice-convicted sex offender. Congress requires all states receiving federal crime-control funds to release information to the public about convicted sex offenders.

Among many changes, Ohio's new law:

  • Makes a statewide sex offender registry available to the public via the Internet.

  • Forbids offenders from moving within 1,000 feet of an elementary, junior, or high school.

  • Expands the offenses for which a person can be classified as a sex offender to include convictions such as importuning or menacing by stalking with a sexual intention.

  • Places offenders who kidnap children on the sex offender registry, even if they weren't convicted of a sex offense.

  • Makes it easier for some offenders to petition the court - after 20 years of no new offenses - to remove them from the notification requirement. However, even if the court approves the petition, the offender still would have to register with the local sheriff.

  • Enables sheriff's offices to charge offenders up to $100 a year to help defray the cost of registration and notification unless the offender is indigent.

  • Mandates that offenders register with the county where they go to school or work. Under the old law, they registered only in the county of their residence, and sheriff's deputies there would notify residents of the presence of the offenders deemed most dangerous.

    The new law leaves it up to the sheriff of the counties where the offender works or attends school whether to notify residents of the information.

    In Michigan, the state's database has been managed by the Michigan State Police. For the most part, basic offender information has been available to the public.

    Though a legal challenge suspended the database temporarily last summer, it's back on line for the public and, by Nov. 10, listed 16,741 offenders.

    Even those without a computer could inquire about the registry with their local police.

    Since Congress gave the go-ahead for sex offender registries, states have passed, debated, changed, and tweaked their laws. Michigan's no different.

    This year, proposed changes would add photos to the site and make it easier for younger offenders to be exempt from the registry. Neither bill has been approved, however, said Karen Johnson, of the Michigan State Police's Sex Offender Registration Unit. “It's still a baby law,” she said. “People are still trying to find out what will work and what won't work.”

    Ohio's Sex Offender Registration and Notification law was passed in 1997. Judges then began classifying sexual offenders into four groups and forced them to register with the local sheriff's office for at least 10 years in the county where they lived. Deputies then had to alert the adjacent neighbors of those classified as “predators,” the most dangerous offenders.

    The law since has extended its reach, requiring sheriff's offices to notify neighbors within 1,000 feet of the offender's residence. But until now, the law did not require, in fact it precluded, Ohio from placing a state-wide list on the Internet.

    That meant a fragmented registry. Residents could check 88 lists kept by 88 county sheriffs. Only some had Web sites.

    By Jan. 1, Ohio's Bureau of Criminal Identification and Investigation must have their Web site up and running.

    Citizens will be able to search by offenders' name or even identify a specific address, such as their own, and look for any offenders nearby.

    Still, a lot of information will be for police eyes only, such as most information about juvenile offenders, said James Canepa, chief of the criminal justice section of Ohio Attorney General Jim Petro's office.

    Ohio's counties carry public information on 10,134 offenders, according to the office.

    State Rep. Bill Seitz (R., Cincinnati) has long advocated extending Ohio's reach over its sex offenders and helped mold the part of the new law restricting offenders from living within 1,000 feet of a school.

    The law doesn't require current offenders who own homes in that radius to sell or move. It also leaves the decision with landlords whether to evict offenders in that area.

    But if an offender tries to buy a home in that area, a neighbor can fight the move with a court injunction, Mr. Seitz said.

    Mr. Seitz said he's familiar with the concern that too much tightening of the law could be unfair. That's why he helped write the part of the law that would allow certain offenders to be removed from notification requirements after 20 years.

    “There is prudent protection, and that's a good goal. But we have to be cognizant that there's a line where we get beyond that and it becomes unduly punitive,” he said. “We're not there yet, but we have to be aware that we don't want to go there.”



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