Where Are All the Sex Offenders?
An informal poll by the organiza-tion Parents for Megan's Law has revealed holes in states' abilities to track the location of convicted sex offenders who are required to register with local authorities under the so-called "Megan's Law" each state now has. The poll found that on average nearly one-quarter of the United States' convicted sex offenders cannot be located at any given time.
In January 2003, the Associated Press reported that California had lost track of at least 44 percent (about 33,000) sex offenders required to register under the state's sex offender registration laws. The report prompted Parents for Megan's Law, a nationwide child advocacy group, to conduct an informal telephone poll in all 50 states to determine the accuracy of their sex offender registries. Nineteen states, including New York and Texas, admitted that they either did not know or could not track the number of sex offenders who failed to register. The survey further revealed that in the states tracking the accuracy of their registries, the average rate of sex offenders failing to register properly or at all was about 24 percent. Florida, at 4.7 percent, had the lowest rate of non-compliance, while Tennessee and Oklahoma, at 50 percent each, had the highest non-compliance rates.
Laura Ahearn, executive director of Parents for Megan's Law, explained that, in her opinion, "the problem begins with the sex offenders themselves." She went on to state that sex offenders, whom she described as "the most cunning of our criminals," could not be trusted to take part in a registry based on the honor system. "I think that expectation is just unreasonable," she said.
Karen Terry, a criminologist at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, stated that the problem is a lack of resources. That is, there are not enough law enforcement personnel to keep checking up on the location and other registry information provided by sex offenders to verify its accuracy. Professor Terry also expressed skepticism that legislation could solve the problem.
The poll did find that the compliance rate for a given state was unrelated to the number of sex offenders in the registry. For example, Florida, which has the lowest non-compliance rate, has about 27,000 sex offenders in its registry. By contrast, the two highest-rate states, Oklahoma and Tennessee, have 5,415 and 6,300 registrants, respectively.
Mary Coffee, senior management analyst supervisor for the Sexual Offender/Predator unit of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement (FDLE), attributes Florida's success in tracking sex offenders to the high level of technology use to track sex offenders; to the good working relationship and support FDLE has with other state agencies, which allows FDLE to update its sex offender registry with information from other agencies' databases; and to the political will in Florida to do whatever it takes to make the system work. Coffee identified political will as crucial to having sufficient resources to track sex offenders.
Recognizing the problems of losing track of sex offenders and the public fear that sex offenders cause by their mere presence in communities, officials in law enforcement jurisdictions nationwide are stepping up efforts to find and track missing sex offenders. New York City, for example, which has nearly 4,000 Level Three sex offenders (the category for offenders deemed most likely to commit new sex offenses) is requiring more intensive supervision of Level Three offenders on probation or parole. In addition, the City is adding 50 new assistant district attorneys just to handle registration violations and is increasing the New York City Police Department's Sex Offender Monitoring Unit from six investigators to twelve. Other jurisdictions are taking similar steps to correct what is widely perceived to be a potentially serious problem.
Source: Law Enforcement News (John Jay College of Criminal Justice/CUNY)
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