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Sex offender registries valuable – to a point

Post by Cheryl Tucker on March 7, 2010 at 12:16 pm |
March 5, 2010 6:21 pm

This editorial will appear in Monday’s print edition.

A tragic case in California has put a spotlight on the issue of sex offenders and the registries that are supposed to keep track of where they’re living.

In theory, sex offender registries provide a measure of comfort for citizens, assurance that someone, somewhere is keeping tabs on those who have preyed on the more vulnerable in the past and may again.

But in practice, that’s often not the case. That’s been all too painfully pointed out in California, which has been requiring sex offenders to register with local authorities for 50 years and has been making the information available to the public since the mid-1990s.

The man charged with the murder of 17-year-old San Diego honors student Chelsea King was registered as a sex offender – just not in Chelsea’s county. When police started looking at local sex offenders, John Albert Gardner III’s name didn’t come up. Now Gardner is a suspect in crimes involving other girls in the area – girls who bear striking resemblances to Chelsea King.

Gardner might not have been on authorities’ radar even if he had been registered in Chelsea’s county. His one conviction, in 2000, had been for a relatively low-level molestation crime.
The case is giving new impetus to efforts to fund provisions of the Adam Walsh Child Protection Act. That law, signed by President George W. Bush in 2006, included measures to better track sex offenders, tighten registration requirements, create a national DNA registry and track the most dangerous offenders with GPS units. But the funding never materialized.

That could change. “America’s Most Wanted” host John Walsh, father of the murdered child the act was named for, has gotten a funding pledge from President Obama.

All well and good. But it would be foolhardy for anyone to think that even a fully funded registry and stepped-up tracking is any kind of silver bullet against the estimated 700,000 registered sex offenders in the United States. It’s been estimated that at least 100,000 may not even be living where they say they are.

Sex offender registries – even good ones like Pierce County’s OffenderWatch – have value for two main reasons: They can alert citizens to at least some of the dangers that might lurk in their neighborhood. And they can help investigators looking for suspects in sex crimes.

But registries are only as good as the process that verifies offenders’ addresses – not just at the time of registry but on a regular basis. Few police departments have the budget to keep close tabs on all the registered offenders in their jurisdiction, so some are sure to slip through the cracks of even the best registries. Also, many offenders are homeless; there’s virtually no way to keep track of them.

Parents concerned about the presence of sex offenders in their community should consult their local registry, and sign up for e-mail alerts for updates (see box). But they shouldn’t count on it to do more than provide valuable information.

On the Web
Pierce County residents can search for sex offenders in their neighborhood and sign up for e-mail alerts by going online to OffenderWatch.

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