D.C. Council members put off legislation this week aimed at strengthening the District's sex offender registry law, which currently does not meet new federal requirements that call for disclosure of where offenders live, work or attend school.
Among other things, the bill, introduced by council member Harold Brazil (D-At Large), would create a World Wide Web site for the public to check for registered offenders in their area. It also would streamline the handling of the registration process within the D.C. government.
Brazil pushed the sex offender registry legislation on an emergency basis this week, trying to meet a July 12 deadline that would have assured the District $200,000 in federal crime-fighting grants. But several council members said they wanted more time to develop the proposal and delayed a final move on the plan until after the council's month-long summer recess.
Civil libertarians also opposed addressing the issue in emergency legislation, saying the subject is too complex to be rushed through. Some members of the American Civil Liberties Union objected to language in the bill they felt discriminated against consensual sex between adults.
Brazil said he changed wording to comply with the concerns of the ACLU and also added a dispute resolution mechanism that would allow offenders time to contest the registration of their names. The Web site listing, which some council members are uncomfortable with, was changed so that it would include only those who committed serious offenses--such as rape--and offenses against minors.
Brazil remains confident about his bill.
"It will help the city. It will help families. It will help parents protect their children," he said. "That is what we ought to be about, and that is what this law does."
Testimony at Tuesday's council meeting highlighted the inertia that has plagued the establishment of a registry since the council approved a version of "Megan's Law" in 1997. The law is named for a 7-year-old New Jersey girl who was raped and murdered. A federal mandate requires city officials to create a registry of convicted sex offenders and to inform communities of the offenders' presence.
Under the District's version, then-Mayor Marion Barry appointed a five-member Sex Offender Registration Advisory Council to assign risk factors to convicted offenders. The factors--low, moderate and high--are based on court-ordered psychological assessments, the nature of the crimes and an offender's employment and living arrangements upon release. They also determine how publicly the offenders would be identified.
For example, only witnesses and the victim would be notified when a low-risk offender is released.
But since its inception a year ago, the advisory council has not assigned a risk factor to a single offender, Brazil said. And 117 sex offenders have registered with the D.C. police, a figure Brazil says underestimates the actual number of sex offenders in the area.
Brazil wants to abolish the advisory council and push the police department to better publicize the registry system.
Local ACLU members said they are relieved that the legislation will undergo the scrutiny they believe it deserves. They said they share victims' fears of repeat sex offenders but worry that the language of the bill--even after Brazil's changes--violates civil liberties.
"It still survives," said Stephen Block, staff attorney for the Capital Area ACLU. "Even skilled attorneys acting in the best of faith can screw up. That's what happened here."
Staff writer Eric Lipton contributed to this report.