Virginia beefs up sex-offender registry: Are enhancements enough to make registry an effective tool?

The Top Story by Chris Graham

 

Visitors to the Virginia Sex Offender and Crimes Against Minors Registry Web site can now click on an interactive map that pinpoints where offenders live in proximity to where they live – and get instant information on the nature of their offenses and even where they are employed.

Those changes, part of an overhaul to the registry unveiled last week, are what you can see. The ones that you can’t see – namely, the commitment of $9 million to add 50 new state troopers to the Virginia State Police to beef up enforcement of compliance of offenders with the registry’s reporting requirements – are possibly the key to the registry’s long-term success.

“The unfortunate thing that we discovered with the old system was that so much of the information on the registry was based on an honor system by the criminal – and not surprisingly, some of the information wasn’t accurate,” said Attorney General Bob McDonnell, who spearheaded the changes to the system as part of his package of legislative proposals aimed at getting tough on sexual predators that was passed in the Virginia General Assembly earlier this year.

“We’re spending, with the new budget, about $10.5 million to improve the registry – including about $500,000 for computer software upgrades, about $500,000 for data entry and administrative personnel to maintain it, and $9 million in actual state police, 50 new troopers, whose job it will be to go out and physically verify all the information provided by the criminal. And then if they don’t register or reregister, the state police have the resources to go out and look for them promptly and charge them with a violation,” McDonnell told The Augusta Free Press.

Where sex-offender registries like the one launched in Virginia in 1994 often fall short is in the area of enforcement, according to Wayne Logan, a professor at the William Mitchell College of Law in St. Paul, Minn., who has studied sex-offender registries nationwide.

“The Achilles heel to registration is that it depends on lawbreakers to comply with the law. It’s an honor-based system – and we know throughout the country that registration rolls are rife with errors, and they are also to a very significant extent incomplete in terms of not having information for all people who should be lawfully registered,” Logan said.

“From the perspective of the registrant, they are able to weigh the burden of registration versus the chances of getting caught. It’s the classic difficulty for the criminal-justice system – where theoretically rational criminal actors are weighing the costs and benefits. But it seems that many registrants are saying that it’s not worth the burden, so I’ll roll the dice with respect to maybe being caught and maybe prosecuted at the felony level,” Logan told the AFP.

The assignment of 50 state troopers to the enforcement of registry requirements will allow the state police to build an “ongoing rapport” with the offenders that they are responsible for, said Thomas Turner, a Virginia State Police lieutenant who oversees the state sex-offender registry.

“Before this, an individual could register, and he would not be heard from again for 90 days. That process is going to change in the fact that we’re going to physically verify where he’s living within the first 30 days,” Turner said.

“The troopers then will have an ongoing rapport with those offenders that they are responsible for – they’ll have a better idea of if they’re there or not there. They’re going to have an on-line contact with us and letting us electronically that they’ve been there and the time, date and location they’ve verified he was there, and the times they went by and he wasn’t there. Those are things that are going to be available to us – so we can look at an offender and say, well, it’s been 30 days since anybody had contact with this guy, and now he’s failed to reregister. We can respond pretty quickly,” Turner told the AFP.

The enhanced verification that the commitment of troopers to the process will provide will mean that the information on the registry should be more reliable. Adding to the reliability is the increase in information that will be required of offenders.

“The work addresses, the updated photographs, the mapping – that’s going to be a positive plus,” Turner said. “Because you can now look at street addresses in relation to where you’re at – schools, the availability of the system to allow you to register to receive community notification. It’s going to be helpful to persons who have a need to know who’s coming in and out of their zip code and contiguous zip code at schools and so forth. The more schools that register, the better decisions they’ll be able to make about bus stops and locations where they leave children in the evenings.”

“It appears to me that this is where states are moving – many states are ramping up the amount of information that is available,” said Bill Chamberlin, a communications-law expert and director of the University of Florida’s Marion Brechner Center Citizen Access Project, which is in the process of updating its 2002 rankings of states’ access to sex-offender information nationwide.

“Indiana, for example, which is ranked currently ranked as being more open than Virginia, provides a recent autograph, home address, full name and alias, date of birth, sex, height, weight, Social Security number, drivers license, description of the offense, name and address of any employers. There’s a fair amount on there,” Chamberlin told the AFP.

Among the registry Web site’s regular visitors is House Majority Leader Morgan Griffith, R-Salem, who was instrumental in the passage of the package of bills aimed at sexually violent predators this year.

“When I was buying a new house a year ago, I got into the registry and looked up the addresses of everybody that was nearby. They were far enough away that I felt comfortable and bought the house. If there had been one next door, I might not have bought the house,” Griffith told the AFP.

The bottom line to Griffith is that while no system of this nature is going to be 100 percent effective in preventing offenders from committing additional crimes upon their release, “this is clearly money well spent.”

“If a predator is determined to do something bad, he’s going to do it. But we can protect our families and not put them in situations where they’re more likely to be targets,” Griffith said.

“I think it might take 50 years to see, but I think statistically we can reduce the number of kids who are molested. You will never eliminate it completely from society – I’m not that naive. But we can probably reduce by 25, 50, maybe even 75 percent – and that’s saying something,” Griffith said.

 

(Published 06-19-06)

 

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