Pressure on to upgrade sex offender registry

By Marley Shebala
Navajo Times

WINDOW ROCK, March 22, 2012

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M ore than 700 convicted sex offenders live on the Navajo Reservation and the number grows almost weekly.

That's according to verbal and written reports submitted to the Council's Law and Order Committee in February and March.

The reports, presented by Criminal Investigations Supervisor Robert Platero of the Crownpoint Police District, were accompanied by draft legislation for a new law - the Navajo Nation Sex Offender Registration and Notification Act of 2012 - and amendments to the criminal code.

Law and Order Committee Vice Chairperson Alton Shepherd is the prime sponsor of the proposed law, which was posted on the Navajo Nation Council website for five days of public comment, which ended on March 20 and begins committee review before going to the Council for final approval.

The committee has worked on legislation to beef up registration requirements since February and on March 2 approved a final draft for Shepherd to put into legislation. The committee members agreed to co-sponsor the bill together in hopes of speeding its passage into law.

Platero and Assistant Attorney General Regina Holyan, both part of the tribe's Sex Offender Registration and Notification Task Force, have stressed to the committee that the tribe has until July to show the federal government that it has "substantially" registered sex offenders on the reservation.

Platero and Holyan said the Council must approve the new law this month in order to provide enough time to complete all the steps needed to meet the federal expectations.

This includes finalizing forms related to registering sex offenders, training law enforcement and judicial personnel, activating a sex offender registry website no later than June and additional training for employees who will be responsible under the new law.

If the tribe does not complete these steps by July, they explained, the federal government will be required under a 2006 law to hand over the job of keeping track of sex offenders on the reservation to state authorities in Arizona, New Mexico and Utah.

The law is the Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act of 2006.

Platero noted that the July 2012 deadline represents a one-year extension of the original deadline. He said the Council approved a Sex Offender Registration and Notification Act in 2006, enabling the tribe to take over the registration responsibility.

The law covers all sex offenders includes Navajos, other tribal members and non-Natives who are living, working or going to school on the reservation, and all convictions count, no matter the jurisdiction or country in which they occurred.

The Council approved the 2006 law prior to the release of federal regulations setting out the minimum sex offender registration and notification requirements, and now the tribe must strengthen its program.

For instance, Holyan explained, federal law mandates that convicted sex offenders be classified in one of three tiers according to the seriousness of their offense. People convicted of the more serious offenses have to register more frequently, and for a longer time.

Holyan noted that the federal law allows the tribe to increase the registration requirements but not reduce them.

The registration is needed because rate of repeat crimes is high among sex offenders. Platero cited a 2007 congressional report showing that 66 percent of ex-offenders were back in criminal court three years after their release.

The report also stated that sex offenders were four times more likely than non-sex offenders to be arrested for another sex crime after their release from prison, he said.

"One thing in the back of our minds is whether this individual will repeat," Platero said. "We have contacted schools, including Diné College and Navajo Technical College, and asked them if their student handbooks includes information about the tribal Sex Offender Registration and Notification Act because individuals have returned and are returning to school to recover, better themselves."

While the rehabilitation of offenders is desirable and their right to pursue, schools, colleges and employers must take steps to make sure no one under their protection is at risk of becoming a new victim, he said.

Federal law requires the tribe to post information about offenders on the reservation on a public website, but Internet access is not available across the reservation and so public information about offenders will be published in newspapers and on the bulletin boards of chapters, hospitals, stores and other public areas, Platero said.

That will cost more than maintaining an online registry, he noted, and the Law and Order Committee is expected to sponsor legislation for funding and additional police officers to implement the changes.

Platero said the Crownpoint Police District, which has become a pilot site for implementation of the law by the tribe, has found that it takes about two hours to register one offender. Detailed information must be collected, including a fresh DNA sample and fingerprints, and entered on the sex offender website maintained by the tribe and linking to other jurisdictions.

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