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North Dakota lawmakers look to streamline sex offender requirements

BISMARCK – The number of registered sex offenders living among North Dakotans has nearly doubled in the past 10 years, but attorneys said Thursday the law spelling out the registration requirements is long and confusing and should be streamlined.

"Because ultimately what we want is compliance," Assistant Cass County State's Attorney Renata Olafson Selzer told the Legislature's interim Judiciary Committee.

The Legislature has tasked the committee with studying the law to address inconsistencies and recommend changes for lawmakers to consider in 2017.

Since it was first passed in 1991, the law has gone through multiple revisions over the years, growing to six pages long with 17 subsections, making it the longest statute in North Dakota's criminal code.

"I think we have a statute that works well," Assistant Attorney General Jonathan Byers said. "We've fine-tuned it ... but it is kind of clunky ... and it could be more user-friendly."

Byers said the state has seen a spike in registered sex offenders in recent years, especially in oil-producing counties that have attracted workers and new residents from out of state.

Since 2005, the number of registered sex offenders in North Dakota has climbed by more than 95 percent to 1,353. That doesn't include 343 offenders who are currently jailed.

The state also has 153 registered "offenders against children," plus another 25 incarcerated, who have been convicted of non-sexual crimes against minors but are covered under the same law.

Upon their release or relocation, offenders have three days to register their new address, school or workplace with their local sheriff or police chief.

But the law contains various timelines for other reporting requirements. For example, offenders have three days to report a change in vehicle or online identity and five days to report a change in school or employment, but they're also supposed to notify law enforcement 10 days in advance of a change in name, residency or employment.

Kendall Vetter, a Bismarck police officer who works in sex offender compliance, called the latter requirement "completely unrealistic."

"I have offenders that start and stop three jobs in 10 days because they may get employed and then they find out that they're a registered offender and their employer fires them, or for whatever reason, they leave voluntarily. I could probably charge out every offender in Bismarck for that," he said.

Attorneys also questioned whether offenders against children should be separated in statute from sex offenders because the public — including landlords considering whether to rent to an offender — often don't make the distinction.

"I think we as a society should be less worried about tracking parents who took a belt to a child than one who sexually abused a child," Bismarck defense attorney Justin Vinje said.

Those convicted of failure to register face a mandatory minimum sentence of 90 days in jail and one year of supervised probation. Olafson Selzer said she agrees that's appropriate for an offender who fails to register his or her address and absconds, but questioned whether a less serious violation, such as failing to report a change in vehicle, warrants such a penalty.

Two committee members said they were surprised to hear from Byers that North Dakota's sex offender program doesn't comply with the federal Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act of 2006.

Byers said the attorney general's office has decided to deviate from the federal act in three areas because of philosophical differences. He said the state bases its three sex offender categories on risk assessments rather than the conviction offense; it doesn't automatically require re-registration upon any felony conviction; and it publishes only the pictures of high-risk/lifetime offenders on the website and doesn't publish the employers' addresses for low-risk offenders because it could risk their job and increase the likelihood they will reoffend.

"He's going to have a whole lot of time on his hands. What do you think that does for him?" he said.

Only 14 states are fully in compliance with the act, he said.

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