LANSING, Mich. – A bill to require the more than 40,000 people on Michigan's sex offender registry to pay an annual fee is igniting a debate over who should bear the costs for operating and maintaining the state's system used to track offenders.
Registered sex offenders already are required to pay a one-time $50 fee, but some lawmakers want to charge them $50 every year to cover the $600,000 a year cost to operate the database. The state says the move could bring in about $540,000 more in revenue each year.
Sex offenders "put themselves onto this registry by their actions," said Republican Sen. Rick Jones of Grand Ledge, who is sponsoring the legislation that is headed to the Senate floor, but not yet scheduled for a vote. "Therefore, they need to pay a fee to maintain it."
But opponents, which include the American Civil Liberties Union, say it's merely a feel-good measure that ignores experiences in other states where the promise of more revenue falls well short of expectations and is an overly burdensome cost for registered sex offenders who already struggle to find housing and jobs.
"They have paid their dues ... this is a burden that we just keep piling on," said Shelli Weisberg, legislative liaison for ACLU of Michigan. She argues that the state is not asking offenders to pay for something that benefits them, but something that is intended to protect citizens. Therefore, the state should pay for it.
Michigan State Police Trooper Amy Dehner, who also is a state police legislative liaison, said the one-time fee covers only about 10 percent of maintaining the database. As people move and change jobs frequently it can be difficult and labor intensive to track those on the registry.
And if the offenders don't pay for the registry, those costs come out of the state police's operating budget, and ultimately hit the taxpayer, Dehner said.
"We can't expect taxpayers to offset or pay for tracking and oversight of these offenders," she said.
Republican Gov. Rick Snyder supports the legislation because the current one-time fee doesn't adequately cover the costs, said Snyder spokesman Kurt Weiss in an email.
If offenders don't pay the fee, they would face misdemeanor charges under the bill. Offenders would have the chance to prove they are unable to pay and receive a 90-day waiver. Offenders would either have to prove in court that they are indigent, are receiving food assistance from the state or living under the federal poverty level, Dehner said.
Other states are looking to increase their fees as well in an effort to deal with the mounting costs of their sex offender registries.
In Idaho, a bill passed in the House this month would boost sex offenders' annual fee from $40 to $80.
But some states have come across a big hurdle: getting offenders to pay.
Illinois' law recently changed to allow towns and counties to charge a $100 annual fee, up from $20 in the hopes that it would generate hundreds of thousands of dollars for the state. But the Illinois Sherriffs' Association said last year that many local agencies found collecting the fines difficult to enforce and many weren't actually bringing in more revenue.
In Massachusetts, a 2011 audit of the state Sexual Offenders Registry Board showed that the agency failed to collect an annual $75 fee from more than 40 percent of offenders and granted fee waivers for another 40 percent.
Shanon Banner, spokeswoman for the Michigan State Police, said as of this month only about 950 offenders on the registry have not paid their registration fee, out of more than 40,000 offenders.
But the ACLU also points to a ruling in Wisconsin court case earlier this year that said imposing fees on registered sex offenders, when it was not a law at the time of their conviction, is unconstitutional.
The judge wrote that "to be sure, the State has a non-punitive purpose for wanting to collect money for such a purpose, but to single out only individuals who have prior convictions for sexual assaults as the sole source of funding can only be seen as punitive."
That case is now on appeal to the federal 7th Circuit Court of Appeals.
If the bill in Michigan goes into law, it won't be the first change to Michigan's sex offender registry this year. One of the first bills Snyder signed this session expanded the public sex offender registry to include more people who commit certain crimes against minors, like possessing child pornography.