New arson registry should be a public document

by MARC KOVAC | CAPITAL BUREAU CHIEF Published:

Columbus - The Ohio House moved a bill last week that would require convicted arsonists to register with the state -- but not before adding an important provision that would open the resulting lists for public perusal.

Substitute Senate Bill 70 requires Ohioans and out-of-staters who have been busted for burning stuff to add their names to a new arson registry for a 10-year period.

Similar to sex offenders, they would have to make their presence known to county sheriffs' offices, providing their full name or any aliases they use, address, Social Security and driver's license numbers, details of their offenses, employer names, etc.

Ohio residents would receive notice of their registration requirements. Out-of-state arsonists who plan on spending more than three days in the area also would be responsible for complying.

Registrations would run $50 initially, then $25 annually thereafter. And those failing to register could face felony charges.

"Arson is a very serious crime with high rates of recidivism," said Rep. Danny Bubp, a Republican from West Union and chairman of the House committee that considered the legislation. "Because of the serious loss of property and loss of life caused by these offenders, an arson offender registry will be an important tool for our law enforcement officials as they investigate these crimes."

The bill moved through the Senate on a unanimous vote in early April, and the House finished its deliberations on it last week.

But somehow, the legislation made it to the floor without a key component -- that is, making the arson registry a public record.

Prior to the Senate's passage earlier this year, Sen. Tim Schaffer, a Republican from Lancaster and primary sponsor, called the list a "private registry" that would be on file at the attorney general's office for use by law enforcement.

"I believe we should do everything we can to help our arson investigators catch arsonists and prevent future losses," he said.

Rep. Matt Lundy, a Democrat from Elyria and a former television reporter, sought to rectify that, via an amendment that was offered and accepted prior to the House vote.

Lundy noted that sex offender registries were public records, and there was no good reason to shield an arson registry from Ohioans' eyes.

"We have an estimated 320,000 intentional fires that are set across this country each year, sadly resulting in more than 400 deaths on average a year and … over a billion dollars in property damage," Lundy said. "That could be your home. That could be your business. That could cost you loved ones. That could also result in the deaths or injuries of our firefighters."

He added, "I believe that the treatment of registries should be consistent."

His amendment on the topic passed on a lopsided 89-3, and the final bill moved on a comparable vote of 91-2.

The legislation next heads back to the Ohio Senate for concurrence on changes made in the House.

We'll see whether the public records provision remains a part of it.

Marc Kovac is the Dix Capital Bureau Chief. Email him at mkovac@dixcom.com or follow him on Twitter at OhioCapitalBlog.

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