THE STATE

SEX OFFENDER REGISTRY IN DISARRAY
STATE'S LIST RIDDLED WITH MISTAKES, HOLES

Published on: 05/30/1999
Section: FRONT
Edition: FINAL
Page: A1
By CHRIS ROBERTS and BLAIR STOKES, Staff Writers
Memo: See related stories on A1, A14, and A15

South Carolina's well-meaning law to warn people of potentially dangerous sex offenders is filled with loopholes, mistakes and missing names. Anyone can check the 2,700-name list on the Internet or at sheriff's offices, but it's a list many people never see. And the list doesn't necessarily help people who do see it.

An analysis of South Carolina's sex offender registry by The State found:

* The registry contains mistakes, such as wrong addresses and duplicate entries for the same offender. Because of these errors, the registry lists addresses of people who aren't sex offenders.

* State law lumps all sex offenders - from peeping toms to serial rapists - into a single list. Other states use, and many experts recommend, a notification system based on the seriousness of the crimes and the risk that an offender might break the law again.

* The list provides the offender's name, address, description and the name of his charge, but offers no details about the specific crime. It also offers no guidance to readers about what precautions they might take, warning signs they might look for or the potential threat an offender poses.

* Three years after the registry became public, many South Carolinians still don't know it's there. State newspaper reporters found 13 child molesters named in the registry who live within four blocks of Richland County public schools. But none of the school principals knew about their neighbors. Unlike 35 other states, South Carolina does not require law-enforcement agencies to tell anyone that an offender lives nearby.

* Children, as young as 12 when convicted of a sex crime, are placed in the registry for the rest of their lives. Some states expunge records of teens who reach a certain age without offending again.

* The registry omits thousands of sex offenders convicted or released from jail before 1994, when the registry was started.

Missing are at least 1,000 sex offenders who left jail before 1994, according to The State's analysis of Department of Corrections records. Also missing are countless sex offenders convicted before 1994 who didn't go to prison.

Nothing on the online registry notes the omissions and, some say, those missing names could lull people into a false sense of security.

The registry's sharpest critics say it offers little protection to the public while hurting ex-cons who served their time.

"The ones (sex offenders) who have worked at overcoming their problems are the ones that need to be allowed to get on with their lives," said Steve Bates, executive director of the South Carolina's chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union. "Politicians are doing things that make people think something effective is being done when in reality we are probably doing more harm than good."

Attorney General Charlie Condon readily acknowledges the law's limitations, but he says it provides a vital public service.

"It's a very valuable tool that needs to be improved," said Condon, whose Web site includes a searchable version of the registry. "It's not a cure-all, but people - especially parents - need to know who's living near them.

"If only one child molestation is prevented by this - and I think thousands will be - it's worth it."

In Megan's memory. In 1996, South Carolina became the 31st state to open its list of sex offenders to the public. The law came at the same time as a new federal law required all states to have some sort of notification process. The federal law was prompted by the 1994 death of Megan Kanka, a 7-year-old killed by a convicted child molester who lived across the street from her in New Jersey.

South Carolina's law turned sex offenders into a different class of criminal. For the rest of their lives - even after their prison time and probation are over - they must tell their local sheriff where they live. Their names, address and photos are available to anyone.

Some wonder how much protection that information provides. Few studies - none in South Carolina - have tested the question: "Is it working?"

Right now, no one really knows.

"There are no easy answers," said State Law Enforcement Division spokesman Hugh Munn, whose agency maintains the registry. "There are a lot of things we've got to do to fine-tune it, no doubt about it. But it's still worth having."

But some experts in treating sex criminals say it's not that simple. They generally agree that most molested children are victimized by a relative or trusted family friend rather than a stranger or casual acquaintance. And they say many offenders can be successfully treated.

"Basically, the ones on the list are the ones you don't have to worry about," said Larry Montgomery, head of sex offender treatment programs for the S.C. Department of Mental Health. "Well, you have to worry about them, but you know who they are.

"The people I'm more worried about are the ones you don't know about. The registry is well-intentioned, but it doesn't have the right people on it."

Rep. Chip Limehouse, R-Charleston, doesn't care what the psychologists say. He sponsored the bill that made the registry public, and he says people should know who's living nearby, then decide for themselves.

"If someone is callous enough to molest his own flesh and blood, why would he draw the line at his neighbor's child?" Limehouse asked. "All this new law is designed to do is cut down the victimization before it occurs."

This year, Limestone introduced a bill to toughen the registry. It would have required sheriffs' deputies to tell everyone within a four-block radius that a sex offender lives nearby.

Had it passed as written, South Carolina would have become the 36th state with some sort of "active" notification.

However, the proposal died under pressure from the South Carolina Sheriff's Association. Association executive director Jeff Moore said sheriffs don't oppose the spirit of the bill. But knocking on doors would divert too much time and energy from more important duties, he said, since the bill didn't include any extra money.

The Department of Juvenile Justice also objected to the bill. Director Gina Wood worried what alerting neighbors might do to young offenders. The registry lists most juvenile offenders 12 and up.

Moore says lack of information isn't the problem. The problem, he said, is that few seek it out.

"At some point, the public has a responsibility to go look at the list," Moore said. "We can make this information available, but you've got to put your hand out and take it."

Some say that law-enforcement officers should, at the very least, tell schools and day-care centers that a convicted molester lives nearby. At least 32 states do now.

An amended version of Limehouse's bill, now in a Senate committee, would require sheriffs to give the lists to newspapers.

"When you have media notification, it's going to make sex offenders careful about what neighborhood they move into," Limehouse said. "They won't move into areas with a high density of children because of getting flak from parents."

Some newspapers, however, might not want to publish the list.

"There's no obligation to publish it," said William Rogers, executive director of the South Carolina Press Association. "If a sheriff wants to buy an ad, that's OK. But there's no obligation to make a newspaper publish it."

No degrees. Some say the registry takes a ham-handed approach by lumping all offenders, regardless of crime, into the same list.

Nearly half the states - South Carolina isn't one of them - determine the risk posed by the offender now on the streets, according to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.

Some states tell residents only about child molesters, not other sex offenders. Some states don't put juveniles on the list, or remove their names when they reach a certain age and haven't committed another crime. Some notify only schools or day-care centers. Others go to neighborhood associations. Others go door-to-door.

South Carolina's registry includes rapists - and teen-age boys who had consensus-but-illegal sex with an underage girlfriend.

Condon say notoriety is a price that sex offenders deserve to pay.

"Once you've been convicted of these crimes, I think you lose privacy rights," Condon said. "I don't want to overplay it, but you do lose some of your rights."

(South Carolina also uses "sexual predator" designations to keep high-risk sex offenders - such as serial rapists - in custody after their prison terms end. Eight men currently are in the program, and another 39 likely will enter the program in the next few months, Montgomery said.)

All sex offenders convicted or out of jail since 1994 will be in the registry until they die. That includes young offenders who - if convicted of any other crime as a juvenile - would not be thrust into the public's eye. The youngest person in the registry turns 14 in July.

Condon doesn't think age should matter. "It makes no difference to a victim if she's raped by a 15-year-old or a 35-year-old," he said.

But he acknowledges the stigma of being in the registry may not need to last forever. "I think there ought to be a release mechanism that involves judges and experts who sign off (to delete people from the registry) if they meet strict and appropriate standards."

Sins of omission. South Carolina's sex offender registry changes daily. Scores of law-enforcement agencies - sheriffs' offices, family courts, and state departments of corrections, juvenile justice and parole - provide SLED with new names and changed addresses.

But the registry is incomplete and sometimes incorrect.

It's missing more than 1,000 sex offenders now out of prison and on the streets, and countless more offenders who didn't serve jail time.

An analysis of Department of Corrections inmate records, dating back to the 1970s, shows 1,000 names of sex criminals not in the registry. Countless other sex offenders convicted before 1994 but served no jail time also are not in the registry.

So even if the registry lists no sex offender as living near you, a sex offender could be nearby.

"Sex offenders are everywhere, and there are many we just don't know about," said Ann Hasty, who teaches sex offender counseling classes for the S.C. Department of Corrections.

The registry also includes countless errors. Of the 260 registered offenders in Lexington and Richland counties, The State newspaper found five offenders with two different addresses in the registry. That means people who aren't offenders have addresses in the registry.

SLED is putting a new-and-improved registry online in July that will include pictures, but mistakes unfortunately are inevitable, said spokesman Munn.

"You're going to find mistakes, but we're trying to clean it up as we go along and get it online," he said.

You know. Now what? The registry's many proponents say that even with its flaws, South Carolinians deserve to know about the sex offenders who live nearby.

But the registry offers little else.

The current online list, at www.scattorneygeneral.com, names the crime and provides the S.C. statute number (occasionally inaccurate), but it doesn't explain the severity of the crime or penalty. It offers no advice about what, if anything, to do if you find a sex offender living nearby.

Hasty, coordinator of sex-treatment programs in state prisons, said notification is tricky.

"Community notification can actually backfire if it's not done right," she said. "You don't want to encourage offenders to hide; that's counter-productive."

Hasty called the registry "one piece of public safety policy," since it holds offenders responsible.

It's also important to "avoid hysteria and avoid some of the vigilantism and to avoid a false sense of security," she said, since few sex offenders are ever caught.

It's illegal to use the sex-offender registry to harass anyone. Condon said no one in South Carolina has been charged with harassing a sex offender.

The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, which helped draft the federal legislation, recommends a risk-rating system that some states currently use.

Under its suggested system, only police would be told about offenders with the lowest risk rating. Practically everyone in the neighborhood would be told of those deemed high-risk. Notification should be coupled with community meetings to teach people how to deal with their new neighbor and how not to harass him.

Condon said he favors fixing flaws in South Carolina's law - as long as registry warns people of the potential danger around them.

"I think I speak for most people when I say that when we let these people back into society, we need to know who they are and keep an eye on them."

The Project

South Carolina's sex offender registry has deep flaws. The Stae found:

* Thousands of sex offenders are on the streets but not in the registry.

* Schools have convicted child molesters living nearby but don't know it.

*Countless entries are inaccurate. It doesn't differentiate between small and serious offenses. And some people on the registry say it's simply not fair.

Report continues on Pages 14-15

Contact Database Editor Chris Roberts at (803) 771-8595 or by e-mail at mcroberts@thestate.com. Contact public safety reporter Blair Stokes at (803) 771-8549 or by e-mail at bstokes@thestate.com.



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