Washington state Democrats propose replacing term ‘sex offender’ to advance a ‘person-first’ approach

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Democrats in the Washington state legislature have introduced a bill that would replace the term “sex offender” in an apparent attempt to avoid defining a sex offender by their crime.

House Bill 2177, if passed, would change the name of the Sex Offender Policy Board, or SOPB, to the Sex Offense Policy Board. The bill also adds a convicted sex offender to the board, as proponents argue the offender’s “lived experiences” are “invaluable.”

“One representative with lived experience with incarceration for a sex offense appointed by the chair of the sex offense policy board and approved by a majority vote of the board’s voting membership” would serve on the board, the bill states.

Board membership is not restricted to Level One sex offenders, who are least likely to recommit a sex offense, but rather, the bill allows Level Three, the most dangerous felons, to serve on the board, KTTH radio host Jason Rantz reported. The sex offender will serve alongside victims of sex crimes, who would be another new addition to the board.

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Democrats in the Washington state legislature have introduced a bill that would replace the term “sex offender.” (Getty)

The SOPB was created in 2008 to “promote a coordinated and integrated response to sex offender management and create an entity to respond to issues that arise, such as integrating state and federal laws in a way that enhances the state’s interest in protecting the community with an emphasis on public safety,” according to its website.

State Rep. Tarra Simmons, a Democrat sponsoring the bill, called for a sex offender to serve on the board alongside sex offense victims and their advocates. Simmons served time for three felony convictions for possession of controlled substances and retail theft in 2011.

“I think that we all do better when we have a diverse legislature. That’s why I’m here,” Simmons said at a House Community Safety, Justice, and Reentry hearing. “And I’m proud to be here. I think I bring some lived experience that was missing from here. And 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.”

SOPB chair Brad Meryhew spoke at the hearing in support of the proposal, saying he believes it brings to the board “that sort of reality check that we always need in public policy.”

“And I welcome the opportunity to have those voices at the table and to do everything I can to facilitate their active participation in our process,” he said.

Republican state Rep. Dan Griffey opposes the measure and questioned why the board would “advocate” for a sex offender.

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Washington State Capitol Building, Interior, Rotunda.

The bill would add a convicted sex offender to the SOPB. (Getty)

During public testimony at the hearing, SOPB coordinator Whitney Hunt defended the legislation by arguing that the proposed change moves forward a “person-first” approach.

“This bill incorporates recommendations the board has previously indicated its support for regarding the use of person-first language,” she said. “This change aligns with best practices and research, and encompasses all the individuals involved and impacted by the sex offense management system, including victims.”

The apparent effort by Washington state Democrats to destigmatize sex offenders comes after other attempts to release them from prison.

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In 2021, Democrats passed legislation to more easily distribute conditionally-released sexually violent predators across the state, including encouraging the predators to pursue a Less Restrictive Alternative, an outpatient treatment program in a community setting. State Sen. Christine Rolfes, a Democrat who sponsored the bill, said at the time that it is, in part, about letting “people who are potentially dangerous, but not necessarily dangerous, back into communities where they can live safely and with their constitutional liberties protected.”

In 2022, the SOPB recommended the state end a rule prohibiting Less Restrictive Alternatives from being placed within 500 feet of a childcare facility. The board argued that “there is no particular increase in risk associated with proximity to the location where individuals who have committed sexual offenses are housed.”

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