WINDHAM, Maine — Nathaniel Sargent could have been a free man in less than a year.

But his short stint behind bars would have come with a price he considered too high: 10 years of public shame on the state’s online sex offender registry.

Rather than bear the burden that comes with that label, Sargent accepted a four-year prison sentence on a more serious charge.

He’d do it again.

Sargent has accepted many of the ways people might label him. He’s an addict since birth, by his own calculation. He’s a young man who admits he lived for a time with no real conscience. Now, he’s prisoner No. 69366 at the Maine Correctional Center in Windham.

But, in his mind, Sargent is not a sex offender, a label that has become synonymous with monsters and predators like a modern day branding mark.

“I have children myself. If anyone touched them … you know what I mean?” the 22-year-old said recently from the prison, his home for the last several weeks.

It was only by some careful legal maneuvering that Sargent, born and raised in Hancock County, ended up in Windham to serve a four-year sentence for aggravated assault. A misdemeanor charge of sexual abuse of a minor was what worried Sargent more than the threat of a lengthy jail sentence.

Sargent’s attorney, Jeffrey Toothaker, and Hancock County prosecutor Mary Kellett agreed to a plea deal in which the state would drop the sex charge, and the eventual registry requirement, if he pleaded guilty to a felony assault charge.

“I would have been in the same category with pedophiles and rapists,” Sargent said. “That’s not right.”

The young man’s case is emblematic of a broader problem with Maine’s sex offender laws, a problem that has not been solved in the five years since a Canadian man shot and killed two Maine men whose names he found on the state’s online sex offender registry: All offenders are painted with the same brush when it comes to punishment.

The Maine Supreme Judicial Court has even expressed concerns about the state’s registry, including its retroactive application to older crimes. Some of those concerns have yet to be fully addressed.

Sen. Bill Diamond, D-Windham, has spent as much time as any lawmaker discussing and crafting policies on convicted sex offenders and said there are inherent flaws.

“Year in and year out, [the public] wants us to be tough on sex offenders,” he said. “And as lawmakers, we don’t want to be seen as weak. But the more you learn, the more you realize that a knee-jerk reaction doesn’t help.”

So as the state continues to debate changes to sex offender laws — some federally mandated — an uncomfortable question emerges: Are we any safer?

Statistics, in this case, don’t shed a bright light on that question, as comprehensive numbers on sex offenses are difficult to find. The state doesn’t track all sex offenses, but from 1998 to 2009, the number of rapes — not including statutory rapes —  jumped from 229 to 374. Police and sexual assault awareness advocates agree, though, that only a small percentage of rapes are actually reported.

Vigilante justice

Sargent was still a hell-raising teenager in 2006 when Maine’s sex offender registry was thrust into the spotlight in an ugly and tragic way.

Stephen Marshall, a troubled 20-year-old from Nova Scotia, spent weeks researching sex offenders in Maine with the help of the state’s online registry.

On Easter Morning, April 16, 2006, Marshall took the lives of two registered offenders in cold-blooded fashion.

William Elliott, 24, of Corinth and Joseph Gray, 57, of Milo had paid for their crimes with jail sentences and probation, but for Marshall, it wasn’t enough.

The killer knew only the faces, charges and addresses of his victims. He didn’t know that Gray was a loving husband whose wife had forgiven his past sins. He didn’t know that Elliott’s victim was at the time just one year younger than Maine’s age of consent and later became his girlfriend.

Any true motive for Marshall’s crimes died with him. About 15 hours after his killing spree, inside a Greyhound bus on a Massachusetts highway, he put a .45 caliber handgun to his head and pulled the trigger.

For legislators, the killings of Gray and Elliott forced them to take a harder look at the registry, but initial discussions did not result in significant changes.

Five years later, not much has changed, despite mandates imposed by federal law and the prodding of the state’s highest court.

“We still need something in the registry that distinguishes offenders like William Elliott from true pedophiles,” Diamond said. “Those high-risk people, they need to be monitored and the community has the right to know where they are.

“For some others we need to ask: How much do you beat on these people?”

That’s precisely why Nathaniel Sargent went to such great lengths to avoid having to register as a sex offender. Yes, he engaged in a sex act with a 14-year-old girl when he was 21. Yes, he exhibited bad judgment. But the sex was consensual, he said. And after three weeks dating the girl, Sargent realized he was in a lose-lose situation.

“I was like, I can’t do this,” he said. “By then it was too late.”

He moved on. The girl’s parents did not. They filed charges.

Sargent said he was ready to go to trial and make his case, but when his attorney brokered the deal, he accepted.

Toothaker, an Ellsworth defense attorney who often represents sex offenders, said Sargent is simply not in that category. The lawyer said he would not even have worried about negotiating Sargent’s unique deal if the registry “had any brains.”

“It’s one conviction fits all,” Toothaker said. “We really should be grading them and deciding who poses the biggest threat.”

The hurdle is that the discussion about what to do with sex offenders and how to distribute information about them continues to be dominated by emotion rather than common sense or credible statistics. Raw emotion is a valid response to sex offenders, Diamond said, but it shouldn’t skew public policy discussions.

Information premium

There is no murder registry. No arson registry. No drug dealer registry. No drunken driver registry, although Rep. Richard Cebra, R-Naples, has introduced a bill this legislative session  to change that.

So, why are sex offenders subjected to such scrutiny? The real concern among most appears to be “How can we make sure our children are safe?” rather than “I need to know where these people are.”

Maine’s sex offender registry has been one of the most visited websites in the state for years.

Over the last three months, the number of offender records retrieved averaged about 14,600 per day, or 102,200 per week, according to Todd Tolhurst, director of development for

The federal Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act of 2006, which mandates state offender registries, was created under the promise of safety. If people have access to information, they can take precautions.

The paradox, however, is that society spends its time worried about the small percentage of offenders who truly are violent predators, but overlooks the massive number of offenders who know or are related to their victims.

Stan Moody, a former legislator and prison chaplain, wrote an OpEd column late last month titled “Maine’s sex offender conundrum.” In it, Moody talks about the short-sightedness of the registry.

“We create something of a lifelong leper colony for people who have been caught acting out fantasies prompted by our sex-crazed culture,” he wrote.

But while efforts are made to track offenders after they have committed crimes, there is no concerted effort to counsel sex offenders or to identify the root causes of sex crimes.

Additionally, there is no mechanism to determine risk of re-offense, according to Barbara Schwartz, director of the Department of Corrections Sex Offender Treatment program. Several tools exist to measure risk, but lawmakers are ever fearful of the cost.

Meanwhile, offenders remain easy targets.

In addition to the deaths of Elliott and Gray, numerous sex offenders have reported various levels of assault and harassment over the years. Sargent, who has the look of someone who’s seen the inside of a weight room, probably could fight off any attempted assaults. Others cannot.

Most psychologists agree that harassment of offenders often leads to social isolation and depression, which could impede rehabilitation and cause some to re-offend. In that sense, registry requirements may harm, not protect, public safety.

Still, the registry grows.

Donna Cote, who supervises Maine’s online Sex Offender Registry, said there were about 600 names to monitor when she started in 2000. Late last month, there were nearly 3,000. A decade ago, only a few crimes required sex offender registration. Now, that list includes close to 20 categories of crimes.

Despite exponential growth, the current number of offenders actually is smaller than it was about a year ago.

In 2005, the state passed a law that required all offenders convicted of crimes from 1982 to 1992 to register, which effectively doubled the number of registrants. Courts have since ruled that requirement constitutes retroactive punishment and is unconstitutional. In response, the Legislature amended the law.

The amendment, passed in late 2009, allows registrants convicted of crimes between 1982 and 1999 to petition to come off the registry if they met certain criteria. So far, Cote said, about 600 have been successful.

The change, the biggest to the registry in five years, is a small victory for one-time offenders looking to start their lives anew, but it didn’t come easily. A year before its eventual passage, Gov. John Baldacci vetoed a bill passed by the Legislature that would have allowed the change to come sooner.

Some legislators have said it never should have come to that.

Former state Rep. Pat Blanchette of Bangor said she is haunted by her vote to create a registry that does not differentiate among offenses.

“Part of the action I took in the 122nd [Legislature] in voting for this rollback has caused a young man, whose mother is sitting in this room, to be dead,” Blanchette said in 2006 during a legislative hearing in Augusta, referring to William Elliott. “That’s a hell of a feeling I have to live with, day in and day out.”

Attention diverted

The Adam Walsh Act, passed in 2006, creates a tiered system that categorizes offenders based on the severity of their crimes and the risk they pose to society.

Only a handful of states have come into compliance with the Adam Walsh Act to date, and Maine is not one of them.

The federal law mandates that states make sex offender information available to the public, but the amount of information varies. Massachusetts and Vermont list only offenders identified as high risk. New Hampshire lists people convicted of offenses against children and indicates the general age of victims.

If Maine implemented a similar system, people like Nathaniel Sargent wouldn’t have to worry even if they were convicted of lesser sex crimes.

Currently, Maine’s online registry includes all offenders and offers little insight into what a person did to get listed. Law enforcement agencies across the state have access to much more information but the Law Court has heard cases arguing whether the public needs access to the same information.

Diamond said Maine would do well to create an online registry similar to what Massachusetts has done. Under that system, the names and addresses of the most dangerous sex offenders would be made public on the state’s registry. A second ranking tier would make available the names of medium-risk sex offenders to the police and to the public upon request. The names of the lowest-risk offenders would exist on a “silent” registry available only to the police.

Lawmakers, however, have targeted other bills aimed at sex offenders, sometimes at the risk of exacerbating the real inequities.

Just last week, state senators rejected a Republican-led bill that would have created stricter residency restrictions for sex offenders. The House followed suit earlier this week.

Sen. Debra Plowman, R-Hampden, supported the stricter restrictions.

“We have not yet as a society found enough deterrents to make this stop happening,” she said.

Most experts agree that residency restrictions are little more than feel-good laws that do nothing to protect the public. The city of Bangor came to that conclusion last winter when it rejected a similar proposal brought by a concerned citizen.

“Saying where they can live, that’s dangerous,” Diamond said. “Eighty percent are known to victims. What are we doing about that?”

So why is the Legislature spending so much time on residency restrictions but cannot create a true tiered system? Because there are few public supporters of sex offender rights. Harassment? Public shaming? That’s what you get for committing horrendous crimes, they say.

Few legislators want to publicly disagree.

Back at the Maine Correctional Center in Windham, Nathaniel Sargent talks about how he plans to pick up the pieces of his life. He talks about reconnecting with his two young children, who he knows have suffered without having their father around.

He said he’ll likely return to Hancock County when he’s released but admitted there are bad memories there.

If there is any silver lining to Sargent’s prison time it’s this: When he walks away for good and returns home to start his life over, he will not have to call a police officer every 90 days to update his address, as is mandated by the registry requirements. His picture and his address and his place of work will not be immortalized on a website for anyone to see.

Best of all for Sargent, he won’t have to carry the weight of that burdensome two-word label.