Sex offenders will have to pay about $100 a year to register with the state under a new funding plan some officials worry might lead to less compliance with the law.
“There have been a number of areas where we've tried to make the criminals pay for their costs to society, and this is another area,” said Sen. Steve Tully, R-Phoenix, who was among the lawmakers who voted to change the funding mechanism.
Val Biebrich, a civilian employee who runs the registration and tracking program for the state Department of Public Safety, called the idea well-intentioned, but probably unworkable.
“Let's look at the people we're dealing with here,” Biebrich said. “Sex offenders don't even want to register.”
The $600,000 yearly budget for Biebrich's office hasn't gone up in four years, but the number of sex offenders to keep track of has risen by about 800 a year.
In the most recent legislative session, lawmakers struggling with a fiscal crisis eliminated the program's state-funded budget for next year, replacing it with the fee system. Offenders must begin paying the fee — expected to be set at about $100 — by Sept. 16.
Biebrich said he is concerned fewer sex offenders will register their addresses as required because of the new fee, even though they could face felony charges for failing to do so.
Collecting the fees could be troublesome. Some are still in prison, and about 800 can't be found. Many live in poverty because of the difficulties in finding a decent job after prison.
Another problem is that Biebrich's unit tracks down fewer than half of the state's 13,000 offenders each year, and most of those found to be unregistered are not charged with a crime. Without any penalty for failing to pay their fine, the registration program is likely to suffer fiscal shortfalls, Biebrich said.
State Rep. Russell Pearce, R-Mesa, said he believes it is critical that authorities know the whereabouts of the state's sex offenders to protect the public.
However, lawmakers believe the offenders should pay for the program, especially when the state is so cash-starved. If the experiment doesn't work, the state will make sure the program is adequately funded, said Pearce, who is chairman of the House Appropriations Committee.
“They'll have the money to do what they need to do,” Pearce said.