COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — Ohio is joining the few states that require convicted arsonists to register with authorities, hoping it will help solve more cases, deter repeat offenses and prevent deaths and property damage.
The new law will require people convicted of arson-related offenses to register annually with their local sheriffs for at least 10 years after they're released from prison or, if not imprisoned, sentenced. It applies whether the offenders were convicted in Ohio or elsewhere, but it doesn't cover those who already completed their sentences.
"It's just another tool in the toolbox for our investigators," state Fire Marshal Larry Flowers said.
California keeps an arson registry, and Louisiana recently established one. Montana's registry of violent offenders includes nearly 90 arson convictions. Illinois passed a law in 2004 to create an arson registry, but that has been held up because some law enforcement agencies there don't yet have access to the shared information system known as I-CLEAR, a state police spokesman said.
The Ohio measure signed by Republican Gov. John Kasich in late December doesn't take effect until July 1, giving the state attorney general's office more time to deal with the logistics of incorporating the registry into the information network used by the state's law enforcement agencies. The cost of operating the registry — a concern raised about similar efforts elsewhere — will be funded through registration fees.
It's hard to measure the effectiveness of such legislation, but proponents say it's a good tool to have.
"If this database helps solve one arson crime and helps to give a family closure, I think it's worth it," said Lt. Slade Schultz of the Lancaster Fire Department, who heard about the idea from inspector Jason Coy and worked with him to bring it to the attention of a firefighters union and their state senator, Republican Tim Schaffer, the bill's sponsor.
Ohio reported more than 8,000 arsons each year from 2007 to 2011, including blazes whose causes remained under investigation or undetermined. Those fires are associated with hundreds of millions of dollars in damage, more than 450 deaths and more than 3,000 injuries to first responders and civilians, according to the fire marshal's office.
Schaffer said the registry will be beneficial in targeting repeat arson offenders because they tend to follow the same patterns or methods in setting blazes. Officials investigating a suspicious fire could check the registry to determine if any arsonists live or work nearby and might be worth a closer look.
"It doesn't mean they committed this crime, but it just gives us somewhere to start," Coy said. He said making the registry available only to authorities, not to the public, should help protect offenders and make sure the public isn't jumping to conclusions based on the list.
Mansfield Fire Chief John Harsch, whose department investigated a rash of more than three dozen suspicious fires with no clear motive in a five-month span last year, said he thinks the registry is a good idea but noted more information is needed to solve cases.
"It's still not going to prove the crime, and arson is notoriously tough to prove," he said.
Retired Dayton fire investigator Scott Bennett, who is on the board of the International Association of Arson Investigators, praised Ohio's registry law and said he planned to seek the board's support for similar measures covering each state, either through state legislation or at the national level.
Lawmakers in Texas and Washington state and in Congress have made unsuccessful attempts to create arson registries. Legislation to start a national registry was approved by the U.S. House in 2007 and again in 2009 but wasn't passed by the Senate.
Lawmakers from California pushed that legislation, spurred by a 2006 arson that killed five U.S. Forest Service firefighters and a deadly 2009 fire near Los Angeles.