This editorial will appear in Monday’s print edition.
At the state Capitol, the right thing sometimes happens for the political reason.
Case in point: A program that sends police officers to sex offenders’ homes became a permanent part of state law last week, allowing lawmakers to save face for dismantling the most dangerous offenders’ reporting requirement.
The grant program, operating since 2008, was a reaction to the murder of Zina Linnik, a Tacoma girl abducted from her Hilltop neighborhood and killed by a sex offender. A sex offender task force established after Linnik’s murder suggested the state do more to help keep track of sex offenders.
The state’s sex offender registry is a creation of state law, but day-to-day management of it falls to local police agencies. In the past, the state outsourced the job without sending money to do it. The result was uneven enforcement. How well the job got done depended on the agency’s ability to dedicate manpower to it. In Tacoma, one detective was assigned to monitor 1,200 offenders.
The grant program, administered by the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs, distributes $5 million a year to the state’s 39 counties. The program requires police to visit registered addresses every three months for Level 3 offenders, every six months for Level 2 offenders and yearly for Level 1 offenders.
It began as a budget proviso and might have remained such if not for a 2009 court ruling that undermined the state’s reporting requirements. Faced with having to undo the state’s mandate that Level 2 and Level 3 offenders check in every 90 days, lawmakers found the perfect antidote in the sheriffs association’s address-verification system.
Legislators wrote the grant program into law, giving it staying power and a nearly guaranteed claim on state dollars. Even in this, the toughest of tough budget years, the money for the sex offender checks is not at risk. No lawmaker wants to be cast as soft on predators.
Moving the registry from self-reporting toward more police verification is an important step, too. The honor system doesn’t work for people who haven’t proved honorable. Police have already found 2,300 cases of registered sex offenders not living at their listed addresses since the state-supported checks began.
Sex offenders who are less than honest about their whereabouts are evading the very thing that makes registries work: public scrutiny. Registries are only as useful as they are accurate.