We need a special session to update public safety laws

Addressing public safety issues is the top priority of state government — if families don’t feel safe, everything else really doesn’t mean much. The governor and Legislature should not wait until January to pass common-sense public safety reforms. We can address dangerous loopholes in our laws this month.

Legislators can adopt policies to better monitor sex offenders and support the hard-working community corrections officers (CCOs) while in Olympia for committee week Sept. 25.

I believe the Legislature is at a crossroads. Some interest groups want therapy and rehabilitation for sex offenders, but fail to put in place any meaningful measures for accountability. I want accountability in the corrections system and adequate front line staff to keep track of dangerous felons and protect the public.

This debate began when three officers were killed by unsupervised felons under community custody. Meanwhile, there have been countless other acts of violence that show the need for tougher laws — a woman was raped and her young child beaten, and a sex offender was found in the backseat of a woman’s car in a shopping center parking lot. Sadly, that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

We must update our laws and technology to ensure dangerous offenders are monitored, tracked and held accountable to follow the rules.

The Legislature has its work cut out for it. The first step is to address how front-line staff, in this case CCOs, are treated, staffed and empowered to do their jobs. At a public safety task force meeting in August, CCOs and other corrections staff said they spend as little as 20 percent of their time, just eight hours each week, tracking down sex offenders under community supervision. The reason? Their department is understaffed and CCOs are bogged down with office work and reports. Corrections officers are assigned to monitor 30 to 50 felons each. They simply can’t monitor that many felons in eight hours.

Adding to this problem, because of potential liability, CCOs are discouraged from conducting face-to-face visits with offenders. How can they know if a felon is complying with the rules of their release if they can’t visit their homes? These are scary facts.

The public believes that the state is monitoring every felon it releases into our communities. But the fact is the state can’t track the 19,798 sex offenders already living in our communities, let alone all of the other violent offenders the system continues to release. Terapon Adhahn, accused of raping and murdering Zina Linnik in July, was classified as a “lowest risk” offender and not monitored at all.

This issue will only get worse because of legislation passed last year, Senate Bill 6157. The bill requires the Department of Corrections to rely heavily on felon “re-entry” programs, which will lead to the release of more offenders, some of them violent predators, into neighborhoods statewide.

There’s a fine line between compassion and accountability. The public has a right to know who lives next door. Any lack of registration information gives sex offenders power over their potential victims.

The Legislature can enact common-sense policy changes that better protect families right now. I introduced House Bill 2415 last session, which would give our CCOs more tools to track and monitor dangerous offenders. Among other things, HB 2415 would constitutionally authorize CCOs to conduct random, unannounced searches of sex offenders’ residences to make sure they are following the rules of their release.

Additionally, I helped craft the bills House Republicans offered for a special session this month. The proposals would:

nupdate our tracking technology;

nallow for better community notification of all sex offenders who fail to register;

nrequire DNA registration for all sex offenders;

nadd e-mail and Internet address registration for sex offenders.

These are common-sense ideas that the governor has recently said she would consider for a special session. I’m committed to creating safer neighborhoods, but I need your help. Every citizen has a stake in public safety issues and your voice must be heard. If you agree with our ideas or have some ideas of your own, I encourage you to call the governor and your three local legislators. The toll-free hotline is 1-800-562-6000.

Working together we can create positive changes to give dedicated community corrections officers and law enforcement the tools they need to protect our families.

It’s time to move in the right direction with common-sense changes to our laws next month. These changes will begin the discussion on additional measures we must take to ensure public safety when we convene for the regular session in January.

Rep. Kirk Pearson, R-Monroe, serves as the lead Republican on the House Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness Committee.

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