Public Interest Needed To Push V.I. Sex Offender Legislation

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A drafting request has been filed to amend the current sex offender registry law, and the amendment could be passed into law by this year’s election with enough public support, according to Senator at Large Craig Barshinger.

“I have a drafting request in with the legal counsel asking them to update the sex offender law to follow the current best practices as used in the U.S.,” said Barshinger. “My request gives the legal counsel a lot of freehand.”

Currently under V.I. Code, sex offenders’ information is made available only to law enforcement officers. Schools are also notified if a sex offender lives within one mile of the facility.

The amount of sex offender information that is made available to the public under the amendment will depend on public input, according to Barshinger.

Careful With Information Released
“We are waiting for input from the public, and trying to see how much interest there is in this issue,” he said. “We have to be very careful, because if we did the wrong thing, like publishing sex offenders’ names and addresses in the St. John Tradewinds every week for the rest of their lives, that might create a level of stigmatization which might actually create vigilante justice.”

Because of the nature of their crimes, sex offenders’ addresses should be made public for the safety of their neighbors, according to Barshinger.

“Sex offenders often times don’t believe they can be rehabilitated,” he said. “Some people say they don’t want a sex offender to be stigmatized, but if the sex offenders themselves tell us that they can’t control themselves, we better be forewarned. It’s almost better if the neighborhood knows.”

The law is not being interpreted the way intended by former Senator Allie-Allison Petrus, who introduced the original Virgin Islands Sexual Offender Registration and Community Protection law in 1997, according to Barshinger.

List Is Now “Secret File”
“I really don’t know about that because it’s a very touchy area, but what we’re doing now in the V.I. isn’t what Petrus intended,” said Barshinger. “It’s supposed to protect people proactively. Now what we’ve got is a secret file.”

Sex offenders’ behavior can be unpredictable, according to Barshinger.

“I look at it as though we live in a place with a bunch of caves, and inside each cave we might find anything, but the government has an obligation to tell us if there’s a bear in the cave,” said Barshinger. “If you know there’s a bear in that cave, you’d better put up a warning sign, because the public needs to know. If you make the bear wear a sign, then everybody’s a little safer.”

Information Is Not for Vigilante Justice
It is unlikely that the public will use information including sex offenders’ addresses to support vigilante justice, according to Barshinger.

“We have to look and say, ‘what is the relative risk compared to random violence?’” he said. “If random violence claims one in 10,000 lives, and only one in 10,000 registered sex offenders is a victim of violent crime, it means the violence toward them is a random statistical thing. Of course, that doesn’t make it any less painful.”

The public should pay attention when sex offenders say they can not be reformed, according to Barshinger.

“Obviously, something in his wiring is different, so that’s why he does it,” he said. “We can not presume to understand that, but when they tell us they can’t stop, we better pay attention to that.”

Passed Before 2006 Election
With public support, the bill could be passed into law before this year’s election, according to Barshinger.

“We rely on people’s interest level,” he said. “I want to see what people have to say about this. This is something where I’m really relying on people.”

“If the people of the Virgin Islands want this, and what they want is pretty much in line with what is in place in other jurisdictions, then we can have this done quickly,” Barshinger added.

Those interested in sharing their input on the legislation can reach Barshinger at his St. John office, 693-8061, or at his St. Thomas office, 693-3546. Comments can also be e-mailed to sexoffender@ visenate.net.

“If you think this is critical, call in and I am listening,” said Barshinger. “We don’t need to know everything about our neighbors, but this is one thing that we do need to know — people need to know if someone who is a sex offender is living in their neighborhood.”