Sex Offender Legislation Moves through Capitol 02/23/10 (audio)
By Eryn Clement
South Dakota lawmakers fill the halls of the state capitol for two months a year where they work through hundreds of bills.
Some of those bills get more attention than others. The proposals that deal with sex offenders are getting much attention.
There are approximately 2,642 registered sex offenders in South Dakota. After a summer study, a packet of bills dealing with classification of sex offenders has been introduced.
Senate bill 12 is the main bill out of the packet which creates a three-tiered system in the sex offender registry. Senator Gene Abdallah says the tiers still hold offenders accountable but also recognizes the people with lesser offenses.
“Right now all sex offenders must stay on for life so following the Federal Adam Walsh act we wanted to establish a three tier system. Where tier one is for lesser offenses and after ten years they can apply to be removed and tier two is twenty five years and then they can apply to be removed and tier three is they are still on there for life,” says Abdallah.
Removal from the registry takes ten or twenty five years following incarceration depending on the tier. Tier two is for offenders who have committed crimes such as incest and bestiality. Tier one is for cases such as statutory rape. Something that typically applies to older teens.
Amendments to Senate bill 12 have combined issues in the original eight bills in the packet. Five bills remain. The issues in the other bills deal with reducing the grace period for certain sex offenders to register from five to three days. Another applies out-of-state registry laws to those offenders not convicted in South Dakota. Convictions of conspiracy or solicitation of sex crimes are added as registerable offenses.
South Dakota Attorney General Marty Jackley says one of the goals of modifying the sex offender legislation is to be fair.
“It’s easy to take an initial look at it and say hammer the sex offender but I think the right thing to do is to take a look at our registry and make sure it’s a fair registry because by making it a fair registry it has more meaning. So when a sex offender is placed on there it means something,” says Jackley. “It really doesn’t aid to a one size fits all. And the committee with Senator Abdallah’s leadership has worked very hard, we’ve had several days of testimony. We’ve had a lot of good discussion and there has been some disagreement but I think there needs to be because at the end of the day we’re going to have a very good fix to our sex offender registry.”
What people often forget and lawmakers try to remember are the average everyday people behind the bills. Senate bill 7, a bill in the legislative packet seeks to allow offenders to live in homeless shelters and halfway houses that are within 500 feet of schools or parks.
Fran Stenberg is the Executive Director at the Union Gospel Mission Center in Sioux Falls. He says right now the laws are too rigid. Often certain cases that come up at mission homes and homeless shelters require flexibility.
“The law does not offer any forgiveness or mercy or grace or anything else. It’s just that’s it period you’re done. It’s all over. And I hope they can change this law, I really do,” says Stenberg.
Stenberg has worked at the mission center for thirty-two years. In his time at the facility, he says he’s seen a few cases where sex offender’s identities become exposed at the mission home. While Stenberg thinks offenders need their boundaries, keeping them from shelter isn’t one of them. He believes he isn’t the only person who feels that way.
“Even in visiting with some of the authorities, they would see it as I don’t know if it’s so much as unfair but questionable. And that it’s better off to have them staying at the mission where their under some kind of restraint and so they’re well monitored and so forth,” says Stenberg. “And that’s a better solution than having them hanging out in the dark corners of the world.”
Stenberg says bills like the sex offender legislation create a lot of dialogue which can help to bring other issues forward. Stenberg says an issue he’s seen in the city of Sioux Falls is the idea to put all of the sex offenders in the same vicinity.
“This is a big mistake that I think we’ve made. The city and everybody else says oh we need to get everybody in the same area. I disagree with that factor,” says Stenberg. “It’s good in a business sense but it’s not good in a moral and spiritual sense or even emotional sense because now you have them all lumped together. And because they are all lumped together, we’re all too close to parks, schools and so forth so there’s really no place for the sex offenders."
Stenberg wants people to remember that while sex offenders need to take responsibility for their actions, they are still people. Regardless of how lawmakers vote on the bills, Stenberg is happy these issues are in discussion and change may take place.
“This is a fair shot, I think they’re looking at doing what’s right and I’m excited,” says Stenberg.
The sex offender bills are being debated in House committees.
Member stations can download the audio file here.