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The Problem with Making the Names of Level I Sex Offenders Public

In Washington State, Level I sex offenders are those offenders who are the least likely to re-offend. They are therefore deemed to pose the least risk to the wider community. While Level I offenders are required to register with law enforcement once released into the community, they differ from higher-risk offenders in that their names are not published on the Washington State Sex Offender Registry.

There are other ways, however, of making the names of Level I offenders more broadly available to the public. The Washington State Court of Appeals, Division Two, recently decided a case where a Washington woman had filed Public Records Act requests in Thurston County and many other counties, attempting to get information on sex offenders required to register in the county. (We previously covered the case before Division One on these same facts.)

Appeals Court Finds SSOSA & SSODA Reports Should Not Be Public Information

In October 2014, Donna Zink made a public records request for all Thurston County unredacted evaluation reports for the special sex offender sentencing alternative (SSOSA) and the special sex offender disposition alternative (SSODA). An adult defendant or juvenile respondent who seeks one of these alternative sentences must undergo a sexual deviance evaluation. These evaluations seek to determine whether the offender is amenable to treatment and can safely be treated out of custody. These evaluations are made by state-certified sex offender treatment providers. The evaluation reports contain a great deal of the offender’s private information (such as sexual and mental health history) and recommend a treatment plan for the offender.

The plaintiffs in this case were all Thurston County residents who had been convicted of a sex offense, had completed treatment, and had either registered as a sex offender or been excused from registration. They filed a class-action suit to prevent Thurston County from releasing the evaluation reports in response to Ms. Zink’s Public Records Act request.

Division Two (like Division One) ruled that Thurston County could not release the unredacted SSOSA and SSODA evaluation reports because they include confidential health information collected in the process of determining whether a Level I offender will be successful in treatment. Such information is exempted from release under a Public Records Act request because of the private, sensitive nature of healthcare information.

Why does disclosure of this information have the potential to harm Level I offenders?

Sex offender registry raises two competing interests: public safety on the one hand, and the privacy rights of offenders on the other. The plaintiffs in the Zink case argued that disclosure of their health care information would cause them irreparable harm while not serving the public’s best interest. They objected to the public release of “intimate details contained in the evaluations, including broad descriptions of an offender’s sexual [history]; the offender’s mental health, personal life, and background.”

When private information of this nature is made public, it becomes a tool for members of the public to harass and discriminate against offenders who have completed their sentences. It is inappropriate for the public to further punish someone solely because of that person’s status as a sex offender.

Publicizing private information related to SSOSAs and SSODAs is especially uncalled for in the case of Level I offenders, the least likely to re-offend. Publishing their information takes away protections that the law has already extended to these low-risk offenders.

In fact, offender treatment experts in the Zink case argued that “the disclosure of the evaluations would hamper treatment and harm public safety because offenders would refuse to participate or fully respond to questions.” If offenders know that everything they say during a SSOSA or SSODA evaluation will eventually be made public, far fewer of them will be completely honest with the health care professionals who are trying to prescribe effective treatment. Less honesty ultimately means poorer treatment and probably more recidivism.

The Marshall Defense Firm helps persons who want SSOSA or SSODA to get it (often no small feat) and helps persons obliged to register as sex offenders get relieved of that obligation as soon as possible. Your rights are important, even if you have been convicted of a sex offense.

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