LINCOLN —A newly released report questions whether public safety has improved since Nebraska adopted a state law that requires all convicted sex offenders to be listed on a public website.
The law, known as the Adam Walsh Act, was passed in 2009, but has been criticized as being too harsh on former offenders who committed minor crimes, are low risks to reoffend and have now become productive, law-abiding citizens.
A northwest Omaha man, who completed his probation four years ago for two federal child pornography convictions, said Monday that being listed on the state’s sex offender registry has been a “horrific” nightmare for him and his family.
Harassing signs have been put on his home and car, eggs have been thrown, and he said he has been unable to get better-paying jobs because of his listing on the Nebraska State Patrol’s website.
“And I’m one of the lucky ones. I’ve been able to keep my job,” said the man, who asked not to be named for fear of further harassment or loss of his job.
On Monday, a report done by the University of Nebraska at Omaha’s Consortium for Crime and Justice Research concluded that the Adam Walsh Act “was founded more on public emotion than good science, which is its fundamental shortcoming.”
The 58-page document stated that Nebraska’s previous system of sex-offender registration, which required only that the highest risk offenders be listed publicly, “did not seem to be broken.”
The report, though, stated that it could not be discerned if the previous, or new, registration system was superior in deterring repeat sex offenses.
The adoption of the Adam Walsh Act in Nebraska was controversial and spawned a lawsuit by a group of convicted sex offenders, who said it violated their constitutional rights. It was also praised for removing the subjective decision of whether an offender was at low or high risk to reoffend.
Those decisions were sometimes mistaken. In 2008 a convicted sex offender was found guilty of raping two teenage girls in Blair. The man, who had been convicted previously in the rape of a 5-year-old girl, had been deemed by the State Patrol to be at the lowest risk of reoffending, Level 1.
Prior to 2009, only the names and photographs of sex offenders who had committed the most serious offenses and were deemed by the patrol as most likely to reoffend were publicized on the patrol’s website.
Under the old system, those who committed minor offenses and were considered a low risk were required to register with law enforcement agencies, but their information wasn’t made public.
Nebraska’s Adam Walsh Act, Legislative Bill 285, required that all sex offenders — low risk and high risk — have their photos and addresses posted on the state website, and to report to local law enforcement officials. The photos are to stay for 15 years for misdemeanor offenses, but as long as 25 years to life for more serious offenses.
The Legislature’s Judiciary Committee two years ago discussed whether to exclude low-risk offenders from the public website, but instead decided to seek more information, via the UNO report, which cost $60,000.
The Omaha man is among 4,302 offenders currently on the registry. The man said he was addicted to pornography but said he overcame it through 11 years of therapy. Regardless, under state law, he will remain on the list for his lifetime.
State Sen. Brad Ashford of Omaha, chairman of the Judiciary Committee, said the UNO report provides better data for lawmakers on which to judge the effectiveness of sex offender registries.
He said his committee may look at revamping the registration requirements of lower-risk offenders, but that overall, the report showed him that it’s not necessary to repeal the entire Adam Walsh Act.
“I don’t see that changing registration laws and going back to tiering them is the answer,” Ashford said.
The senator added that the report’s data will aid his effort to reform state criminal sentences to ease the state’s chronic prison overcrowding. Treating sex offenders outside of prison must be considered, Ashford said, because among state prison inmates, sex offenders make up one of the largest categories.
The Adam Walsh Act was named for a boy who was abducted and murdered in Florida in 1981. His father is John Walsh, host of the television series “America’s Most Wanted.”
Among the UNO report’s other findings:
» Recidivism rates for sex offenders were low — more than 97 percent do not reoffend — but were lower following the passage of the Adam Walsh Act. For instance, the recidivism rate for Level 2 (medium-risk) offenders was 0.5 percent after passage of the act and 2.5 percent before.
» Public registries are limited in value because they list only known offenders, when most sex offenses are unreported. Thus, public registries could do a service by emphasizing that the greatest danger exists within a family or circle of acquaintances — about 90 percent of sex assaults are committed by someone the victim knows.
» Registries that show the addresses of offenders could provide a false sense of security because most sex offenders do not commit crimes in their own neighborhoods. Only 7 percent of such crimes were committed within a mile of an offender’s residence.