Keeping track of sex offenders

October 1, 2005

Staff writers

Many states are taking a hard look at their public registries that list
convicted sex offenders who are free and living in communities.

Some of the offenders are missing.

State Web sites serve as community alerts. Offenders’ names, photographs,
birth dates and at least their partial addresses are listed.

Some addresses aren’t valid.

Maryland and Virginia recently checked their published registries of
sexual offenders and found they could not account for about one-fourth of

“Seven hundred and twenty were supposed to be in jail, but were gone, we
didn’t know where,” said Kim Hamilton, executive director of the Virginia
State Crime Commission.

Another 213 had indicated they were moving to another state, but were
found back in Virginia prisons, Hamilton said.

“We’re trusting sex offenders to monitor themselves,” Hamilton said.

Pennsylvania has one of the more demanding Megan’s Law requirements,
according to Lt. Janet McNeal of the Pennsylvania State Police Megan’s
Law Section. Offenders must register their addresses in person to state

About 5% to 10% of offenders are non-compliant in Pennsylvania, McNeal

When the offender provides an address to the Megan’s Law section, it is
then passed to local law enforcement to check the validity of the
address. However, local law agencies do not usually knock on the door to
see if the offender actually resides there, because they’re not required
to by law.

“There’s a very fine line between monitoring someone and profiling them,”
McNeal said.

States have walked the Megan’s Law tightrope between community awareness
and harassing someone who’s served his time.

Sex offenders have a reputation for being mobile, according to law
enforcement authorities. There are more than 400 registered sex offenders
living in the counties between Chambersburg and Winchester, Va. Applying
the states’ non-compliance rates: 75 of them are missing.

“It’s not so much that they slip through the cracks as much as they look
for a crack to slip through and get out the other side,” McNeal said.
“You’re always going to have certain people that are looking for

Certain loopholes might be closed soon, as further changes might be
imminent. Bills are on the floors of the Pennsylvania House and Senate as
well as in Congress to amend certain parts of the law. Some of the things
considered: Stiffer penalties for failing to register or failing to
provide current information; and GPS tracking devices for the more
violent predators.

“We have a better law than we did a year ago, but there’s still more that
we could do,” McNeal said. “We’re reacting to changing times. You have
theft laws that have been on the books for hundreds of years, but this is
a fairly new law.”

Meagan Laws across the nation are works in progress.

“We’re missing the DNA profiles of over 3,000 sex offenders on our list
(of 13,000),” said Hamilton of Virginia.

“The problems are nationwide,” said David Wolinski, assistant director of
Maryland’s criminal Justice Information System. “We are still struggling
at 10 years.”

Eleven years ago, Congress passed Megan’s Law requiring states to
establish registries of people convicted of violent or child sex crimes.

Pennsylvania posted its registry on the Web in January after months of
legal challenges to versions of its Megan’s Law. The Web site posts the
names and photographs of 7,666 sexual offenders who live, work or attend
school in Pennsylvania. About 100 are considered to be violent, according
to McNeal.

About 100,000 of the nation’s 563,000 registered sex offenders are
missing or non-compliant, according to the National Center for Missing
and Exploited Children.

“We need to do a better job,” said Ernie Allen, president and CEO of the
National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. “We need better
sentencing. At a minimum, we need to know where they are.”

Most states require that a sexual offender mail his change of address,
rather than visit his local police station. Pennsylvania requires that
offenders register in person every time.

Because of Hurricane Katrina, 4,500 sex offenders were forced to
relocate, Allen said. Authorities asked them to register their new
locations, but few did.

Allen recently spoke to Pennsylvania, Maryland, West Virginia and
Virginia legislators at 18th annual Quad-State Legislative Conference.
About a dozen counties in the quad-state region share Interstate 81, a
major north-south highway transporting legal commerce as well as crime
through the Cumberland and Shenandoah valleys.

“All of your states have made significant strides,” Allen said. “This is
a huge, under-appreciated problem. Most victims we’re never going to hear

According to Allen, the young are most vulnerable:

- One in five girls and one in 10 boys will be sexually victimized before
the age of 18 years, and just one in three will tell anyone about it.

- Most rapes happen to children (61% of rapes are of girls under the age
of 18 and 29% of rapes are of girls less than 11 years old.)

- Child pornography on the Internet is a $3 billion a year worldwide
industry. Most customers and victims are Americans. A Texas man
accumulated 70,000 subscribers who paid $30 a month for Internet child

- The typical child molester begins abusing children by the age of 15.
Most sex offenders are younger than 35.

- State laws and registries vary widely. Some states publish the
addresses of sex offenders; some don’t. Pennsylvania lists only the
offender’s town. Pennsylvania and other states can notify neighbors and
schools where sex offenders live.

Courts have ruled that state registries are regulatory, not punitive,
according to Allen.

“This is not a privacy concern,” Allen said. “(Sex offenders) represent a
clear and present danger and the highest risk of repeat offense.”

The answer to a dangerous dog in the neighborhood is not to kill the dog,
but for parents to know where the dog is and to warn their children to
stay away, according to Allen.

Awareness is empowering, he said.

The registry is also a tool for police who have little hope of patrolling
for sexual offenders.

Officers patrolling highways can get involved only if they have a
description of a vehicle, according to Pennsylvania Trooper Angel Garcia.

Copyright ©2005 Public Opinion

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