(The Center Square) – A Washington bill would require a convicted sex offender be among the members of the State Sex Offender Policy Board, which would also be renamed “Sex Offense Policy Board.”
House Bill 2177 sponsored by Rep. Tarra Simmons, D-Bremerton, would also require a victim of a sex offense serve in an effort to “diversify” the number of backgrounds represented on the board.
While supporters maintain that it will allow greater representation in crafting policies for the conviction and release of sex offenders, some critics say it strays from the board’s original purpose of allowing neutral voices to make recommendations.
Under HB 2177, SOPB would also be restructured to require a member from organizations that represent victims of sex offenses as well as those representing individuals convicted of sex offenses. Although the bill tasks SOPB with consulting the Office of Crime Victims Advocacy on “trauma-informed practices” for selection a victim for the board, it contains no stipulations on the type of sex offender who could be appointed by the board chair and voted in by a majority board vote.
At the bill’s Jan. 16 public hearing, Simmons told colleagues that “while some people may have a stigma for people who have committed a sex offense, I think they have invaluable information to share that can really guide this board.” The first state legislator to be formerly incarcerated, she said her background brought “some lived experience that was missing here.”
Also testifying in favor of the bill was SOPB Chair Brad Meryhew, a defense attorney who represents those accused of sex offenses. He told the committee that “one of the things that we try very hard to do on the board is to facilitate as many diverse voices as we can at the table. We invite to the table many stakeholders, including those impacted by these policies.”
“This is not a process that anybody takes lightly,” he added.
Another proponent of HB 2177 was Alex Mayo with Washington Voices, an organization that represents convicted sex offenders. He told the committee that the bill would “increase diversity of perspectives on the Sex Offender Policy Board. For far too long we have been focused solely on punishment. Our policies also need to address healing and prevention.”
SOPB member Sonja Hardenbrook, who represents the Washington Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers on the board, told the committee that “it is important to include those with lived experience in all policy decisions. It’s a reality that those of us fortunate enough to serve on boards like this bring with us a fair amount of privilege, and it can blind us to some policy or its impact.”
However, former SOPB member James McMahan with the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs said the bill goes contrary to the original vision of the board when it was first formed in 2008. McMahan said it was envisioned to be a “small quiet, ad hoc board of experts who can dispassionately and with education and experience recommend to the legislature” policies for public safety.
“It doesn’t feel like an ad hoc board anymore,” he said.
Although the board can only make recommendations based on requests from the Legislature, McMahan said “the policy board has been consistently meeting on projects assigned by single legislators….almost consistently for years. I had to step away from it because I couldn’t simply do it and other duties.”
He went on to say, “We think that the value and the original vision of the policy board is good.”
No further action is scheduled for HB 2177.