LEGISLATIVE WATCH WYOMING: State May Make Certain Sex Offenders Register for Life
Would only apply to most serious convictions
- Published In: Politics
- Last Updated: Feb 13, 2023
By CJ Baker
Special to the Wyoming Truth
This story has been updated as of 9 a.m. MT on Feb. 14 to reflect that some sex offenders in Wyoming already face lifetime registration.
Wyoming residents who commit the most serious sex offenses are required to stay on the state’s online sex offender registry for the rest of their lives – and lawmakers may expand the requirement to include more offenders.
After spending a certain amount of time on the registry with no issues, certain types of offenders can petition a judge to be removed from the list. But a bill moving through the Legislature aims to narrow the pool of offenders who are eligible for that opportunity. It easily passed the House and is set to be considered by the Senate Judiciary Committee today.
The sponsor of House Bill 90, Rep. Chris Knapp (R-Gillette), said the measure is not meant to punish offenders further but to protect the public. Knapp said keeping offenders on the public registry will prevent situations where a person enters into a relationship or has children with an offender while not knowing their past.
“These crimes live in secrecy. These crimes live in the darkness and they cycle,” Knapp said. Requiring lifetime registration for the most heinous offenses “allows a light to be shone and at least have future families be aware of what they’re getting into,” he said.
HB 90 cleared the House on a 50-11 vote, though not before some debate about the effectiveness of sex offender registries.
“The evidence so far suggests that these registries are not helpful, that they don’t prevent, they don’t reduce [offenses],” said Rep. Karlee Provenza (D-Laramie), a victim of sexual assault and one of the no votes on the bill. “It gives a false sense of security, a false sense of safety.”
America’s stemmed from several high-profile child abductions and murders in the 1980s and 1990s. Following Congress’ lead, Wyoming began requiring sex offenders to register in 1999. Today, Wyoming has , including roughly 670 behind bars. The database lists each offender’s personal information — including their address, workplace and vehicles — although those who were convicted as juveniles are not on the site.
Wyoming offenders are barred from being at or living within 1,000 feet of a school and must notify their local sheriff’s office of any changes to their address, employment, email addresses, online aliases and phone numbers. Failing to update information within three days can bring a felony charge.
At a Jan. 20 House Judiciary Committee meeting, Terry Armitage of the Wyoming Association of Sheriffs and Chiefs of Police voiced support for HB 90 and said all sex offenders should be subject to lifelong registration. He cited the registry’s value to the public.
“Keeping track of their whereabouts is important, so they don’t end up in a school system or in any setting where they might reoffend even more easily,” Armitage said.
The former prosecutor said he’s heard from experts that all sex offenders are at high risk of recidivism. “And if they can go 10 years without getting convicted of another offense, that probably means they just didn’t get caught,” Armitage said.
In search of a solution
In a 2015 report, the Department of Justice said research indicates roughly 5% of sex offenders commit a new sex crime within three years, with 24% — or about one in four — doing so within 15 years. Knapp cited that percentage, saying, “When you get recidivism rates that are this high, I believe that it is the state’s obligation to be part of the solution.”
The DOJ report adds that while certain offenders — such as those who molest boys — are much more likely to reoffend, research “consistently finds that sex offenders have lower overall recidivism rates than non-sex offenders.”
During the committee meeting, Bruce Burkland of the Wyoming Youth Services Association said he didn’t think convicted juveniles should be on the registry at all, “but certainly not for a lifetime.”
Burkland said all of the young offenders he’s worked with had previously suffered trauma and become disconnected from other people. Treatment programs aim to reconnect offenders to society and rebuild their empathy for others, Burkland said — and those programs generally succeed.
“Then they’re sent out and are still on a registry that, whether it’s confidential or not, at least in Wyoming and in small towns, everybody knows about. And the youth ends up just isolated and removed and disconnected again,” Burkland said.
The House later amended the bill with the intent of continuing to allow juveniles the ability to get off the list with a judge’s permission.
Donna Sheen of the Wyoming Children’s Law Center had asked lawmakers to also continue to give adult offenders that opportunity – it comes after 10 or 25 years with a clean record, depending on the offense – and to reject HB 90.
“I think it’s important to offer an avenue for these folks to be able to show that they have been able to rehabilitate and have changed their lives,” Sheen said. She called the registration requirement “a very onerous burden” that should only be used “when we’re sure it’s needed for protecting society.”
While popular, the effectiveness of sex offender registries is debated. For instance, a 2010 study of sex crimes in South Carolina found that the creation of a public registry may have initially deterred new offenders, but didn’t reduce the chance of convicts reoffending. The overwhelming majority of sex crimes continue to be committed by first-time offenders who are not on a registry and are someone the victim knows.
Rep. Ember Oakley (R-Riverton) noted that the mandatory lifetime registration in HB 90 only applies to the most serious sex crimes, which have a substantial impact.
“If somebody’s convicted of first-degree sex assault and the burden on them is that they have to go to the sheriff’s office occasionally, I think, on balance, that’s not asking too much,” said Oakley, a Fremont County prosecutor.
On the House floor, Rep. Clark Stith (R-Rock Springs) sought to narrow the lifetime registration to only first-degree offenses and incest. He suggested the registry could eventually become clogged with 70- and 80-year-olds, noting second-degree sexual assault could apply to a female jail cook who had consensual sex with a male inmate.
“This has kind of an 18th century feel to it that I think just goes a bit too far,” Stith said.
Proponents countered that the second-degree offenses also cover doctors who sexually abuse patients, individuals who use date rape drugs or blackmail to manipulate someone into having sex or a teacher having sex with a young student.
“We do need to be careful that we don’t write people off,” said Rep. Jeremy Haroldson (R-Wheatland), but, “this is the worst of the offenders we’re addressing and saying, ‘Hey, you know what? They crossed that line, they had the lapse of judgment to cross that line and there needs to be protection.’”
The bill — which would only apply to offenders convicted after its passage — must pass committee and three readings in the Senate to advance to Gov. Mark Gordon’s desk.