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Coronavirus In Ohio: People With Sex Offenses Risk Health For In-Person Registration

In Franklin County, people with sex offenses register at the Karnes Building on High Street.
Paige Pfleger
In Franklin County, people with sex offenses register at the Karnes Building on High Street.

Even as most Ohioans are encouraged to stay home during the coronavirus pandemic, people convicted of sexual offenses are still required to register in person. Some Ohio counties and even nearby states have waived that in-person requirement, but most, including Franklin County, have not.

“So we are crossing over to the records department here in Franklin County where they make everyone start their registration journey,” says Zach Ruppel.

Ruppel is familiar with this journey: He often walks people through the sex offender registration process for their first time. He goes through it himself every six months.

In Franklin County, it’s a two part process: registrants check in with the records department, then cross the street to check in with a deputy from the Sheriff’s Office by calling a posted phone number. It needs to be done in person, and the pandemic has not changed that.

Ruppel says that’s a problem. He says people in the office don’t stay six feet apart, and many people have no choice but to take public transit to register, which further puts their health at risk.

“It begs the question: If one is walking down here to just get a phone number and call it, why can that phone number just be given out ahead of time for people to call?” Ruppel says.

Ruppel was a high school music teacher who served time for texting inappropriately with some of his students. Now he’s an advocate, and says he's disappointed that maintaining the registry is prioritized above the risk of spreading COVID-19.

“When do I get to watch the commercials on TV that say, ‘We’re all in this together’ and really feel like I’m included in that?” he says. “I did what I did. I broke the law. I took advantage of my position of authority. I targeted people who were underage. Absolutely. Guilty. I served my time. But when do I get to be human again?”

Franklin County has about 1,700 sex offenders according to the sheriff’s office. About 50- 70 people come through the office every day it's open to update their registration.

Deputy Charles Williamson says staff are using PPE, the office is being disinfected, and they are encouraging social distancing. He says they have not considered changing the registration process because of the pandemic.

“This is not a choice of the sheriffs office,” Williamson says. “This is all statutory. We’re required to do registration in accordance with the law.”

Credit Paige Pfleger / WOSU
A sign for the Sex Offender Registration & Notification (SORN) Unit in Franklin County.

But other county sheriffs in Ohio have changed the process, despite falling under the same law.

In early April, the Washington County Sheriff decided that registration should take place by phone, for the safety of both staff and sex offenders.

“The offenders have cooperated very well,” says Deputy Patrice Tornes. “And this month, I have had no one out of compliance, everyone called me.”

Tornes says it was well within the county’s authority to make the switch, and they plan to continue doing phone registration until it is safe to have registrants coming in.

“Sometimes you got to let the human side come through,” Tornes says. “Be the officer, you always have to be the officer, but you still have to be human too. These folks have problems, but they get sick just like everybody else.”

While registrants have expressed gratitude at the change in Washington County, Camille Crary with the Ohio Alliance to End Sexual Violence says the change could be difficult for victims.

“For any person that has been through a traumatic experience, a shift in consistency in terms of how that offender is being managed can potentially be very upsetting,” Crary says.

She says many perpetrators of sex crimes don’t end up on the sex offender registration at all – cases are difficult to prove and prosecute. But the registration is a sort of justice for the few victims whose offenders are on it.

“That is a way they can be held accountable,” Crary says. “That is something that is changing their life in the way that the sex crime changed the survivor’s life. And so it becomes very very important to them.”

State Rep. Bill Plummer (R-Dayton), a former sheriff, says that pandemic or not, there should be reforms to the state’s sex offender registration law.

“It’s very expansive and I think it needs to be reeled in some because it’s very costly, we have to mail postcards out to neighbors, child care centers,” Plummer says. “It’s very very costly to the taxpayer. And the analysis needs to be: Is it worth that investment? Should we just track the most serious ones?”

Plummer says alternatives like phone registration might save taxpayers money, and in situations like this one, could also save lives.

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