Representative Peter Palumbo introduced a bill this week that would improve the notification process for sex offenders in Rhode Island. The sex offender registration and notification act (SORNA) is a piece of federal legislation that, if passed here, would bring the state into accordance with policies nationwide.
“They’re trying to create some uniformity between all the states,” Palumbo said.
Public safety, and the safety of children in particular, has been a priority for Palumbo (D-Dist. 16, Cranston) since he was first elected to the House in 1994. Johnston Representative John Carnevale (D-Dist. 13, Providence, Johnston) is a co-sponsor for the bill.
“Sixteen years ago I put in Megan’s law, which was the first of the notification laws in the state and we were one of the first five or six states that had it,” he said.
Megan’s law was followed by Jessica’s Law, and now SORNA, which includes provisions of the federal Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act. By passing new legislation, Palumbo hopes to close loopholes in existing state law.
SORNA would provide for the registration and notification of individuals adjudicated for a sex offense. Registration would also be retroactive for individuals not currently required to register. Offenders must provide their name, date of birth, Social Security number, current digital photograph, accurate physical description, driver’s license, ID card, passport, immigration documents, residential address, telephone numbers, Internet identifiers, vehicle information, employment information, fingerprints and DNA.
Much of this information would be accessible by the general public, and notifications would become web-based and automated. Rhode Islanders can then search for offenders in their communities, for example if they are looking to buy a house and want to know more about the neighborhood they are considering.
“There’s going to be a lot more information electronically available to the public,” Palumbo said.
The State Police Department of Public Safety would maintain the database and would also oversee the notification.
“It takes the notification process out of the local police departments and it puts it under one jurisdiction, which is the Department of Public Safety at the State Police,” Palumbo said. “That is a boon to all the cities and towns because it gets costly to notify all the people in the areas.”
Funding would be, by and large, taken care of. Without SORNA, the state is penalized, losing 10 percent annually in federal Byrne Grant funds. If SORNA passes, then those funds would be directed toward implementing and supporting the act’s requirements. Palumbo estimates that 10 percent to be between $140,000 and $180,000 annually.
“For each year we don’t pass it, they’re going to hold that money back,” he said.
SORNA provides a new mechanism for assigning levels to sex offenders as well. Now, a Sex Offender Board of Review determines the level, which can be appealed by the offender. This new act makes the level offense-based, taking interpretation out of it.
“It’s less subjective. It makes the law offense-based, so if a person violates such and such a law, they’ll automatically be assigned a 1, 2 or a 3,” he said.
Palumbo has introduced similar bills in the past, which got through the House but died in the Senate. He is confident that the bill will pass this year, saying that his constituents have been overwhelmingly supportive and, at the General Assembly, “things are looking positive,” especially with the support of Attorney General Peter Kilmartin.
“It is a priority of the Office of Attorney General, and me personally, to advocate for laws that better protect our community and, more so, laws that better protect our children from child sex offenders,” Kilmartin said in a release. “The SORNA legislation will give greater protections for the citizens of Rhode Island and will give law enforcement the information to keep sex offenders accountable.”