The names of low-level sex offenders throughout Washington may be released under the Public Records Act, the state Supreme Court ruled Thursday in a split decision.
In its 7-2 ruling, the court threw out a King County order preventing disclosure of the records, which were requested by Franklin County resident Donna Zink. Law enforcement agencies had previously been given authority to release information at their discretion about Level 1 sex offenders, those considered the least likely to reoffend.
In her majority opinion, Supreme Court Chief Justice Barbara Madsen said state law provided no explicit instruction that names of low-level sex offenders were to be exempt from the state’s public disclosure laws.
“Nothing in (state law) indicates a legislative intent to protect level I sex offenders or their victims,” Madsen wrote.
The Washington Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers fought the release of the names, arguing it would subject offenders who “have a very low likelihood of re-offense” to public ire and stymie their efforts at treatment.
Douglas Phelps, a Spokane criminal defense attorney who has represented sex offenders, called the ruling “terrible.”
“The problem is, if that list is public, they’re run out of communities. They’re not able to rent apartments or houses. They’re branded,” Phelps said.
Roger Peven, the former executive director of the Federal Defenders of Eastern Washington and Idaho, said he hadn’t seen the state court ruling. Congress passed its own law, most recently revised in 2006, about who must register as a sex offender in the federal system, and different public disclosure laws apply to that system.
But Peven said he understood the ruling, acknowledging there were compelling “competing interests” from those in favor of full public disclosure and those pushing for anonymity so they can seek treatment outside of public scrutiny.
“We also want to give people the opportunity to succeed,” Peven said. “That, too, is in society’s interest.”
The Department of Corrections’ End of Sentence Review Committee performs risk assessments based on a tool that was first employed in 1999. Offenders are rated on a three-level system, with Level 3 offenders considered the most likely to commit new sex crimes based on factors like the use of a weapon, number of sex-related crime convictions and the ages of victims.
Justices Charles W. Johnson, Susan Owens, Mary Fairhurst, Debra Stephens, Steven Gonzalez and Mary Yu joined Madsen’s majority opinion. Justice Sheryl Gordon McCloud penned a dissent, signed by Justice Charles K. Wiggins.
Subscribe to the Morning Review newsletter
Get the day's top headlines delivered to your inbox every morning by subscribing to our newsletter