State law causes confusion, backlog in county courts

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Judges in at least four Ohio counties have raised questions about the constitutionality of changes to the state’s sex offender registration laws. At issue: whether offenders convicted prior to changes in the law can be punished retroactively.

The state legislature in 1997 passed Megan’s Law, requiring people convicted of a sexually-oriented offense to register in a state database. The law used three classifications: sexual offender, habitual offender, and sexual predator. In turn, counties have since worked with the state to inform residents when offenders move into a neighborhood. The recently-enacted Adam Walsh Act operates on a similar premise, but toughens the law. The result: a majority of those who used to be considered low risk are now in a high-risk category.

“It seems to me they could have avoided a lot of confusion with one simple saying: everyone convicted after January 1, 2008 will go under Adam Walsh. Everyone else is subject to the old law.”

Dick Reinbold is a common pleas judge in Stark County in northeast Ohio. He says in addition to retroactive punishment, he has concerns about violating previous plea agreements.

“Was it part of a plea agreement that the defendant would plead guilty to the offense if he were classified under a classification that did not require pubic notification or community notification, Reinbold says. Under the Adam Walsh law, that same offense is automatically subject the offender to community notification.”

The law has prompted similar concern from judges around the state, so much so that at least four counties have placed injunctions on challenges to the law and moved in favor of a single mass hearing.

One of those counties is Licking county, just east of Columbus. Common pleas judge Tom Marcelain says the law, in effect for just over three weeks, has already caused a backlog of petitions and complaints with the clerk of courts. But he says his biggest objection is to a new classification system that attaches certain crimes to certain risk levels, taking discretion away from judges. He says, like most other judges, he does not like state lawmakers telling him how to run his bench.

“You can’t tailor the results of the case to the facts as they are before you, Marcelain says. You can’t make things worse for a bad person, or less for a person who’s not so bad.”

Marcelain says he expects the state Supreme Court to eventually make a ruling.

Until then, the state public defenders office is stepping in.

The office on their Web site offers advice and forms for people wishing to appeal their new status. Office spokeswoman Amy Borror says her office has been getting dozens of requests for help every day.

“This is probably the most extensive information we’ve posted on our web site, Borror says. This is a huge shift in Ohio law, so we’ve been trying to be a clearinghouse for information.”

Borror isn’t shy about expressing her opinion. She says her office has opposed the legislation since it was introduced in the state House of Representatives early last year. A major reason for that, she says, is the burden it places on individual counties. She says the new process has had some what an ironic effect since the increase in work at some sheriffs’ offices has caused delays in notifying the community.

“Some counties are immediately sending out the post cards as soon as someone comes in to register, Borror says. Other counties are deciding not to, so that obviously creates a difference, depending on what county you live in, on whether your neighbors will know as soon as you go in to comply with the new law or if there will be a delay in that.

No sheriffs offices returned calls for this story. Neither did the bill’s sponsor, state senator Steve Austria. He referred questions to the state Attorney General, who did not return phone calls.