Monday, March 3, 2014

Megan's Lawbreakers Experts: Sex offender registry not perfect system

Editor's Note
The first in a two-day series about enforcement of Megan's Law requirements. Part 2 will be published Monday.

Posted: Sunday, February 23, 2014 

Pennsylvania State Police believe they know the whereabouts of roughly 97 percent of the more than 15,000 registered sex offenders in the state, but the ones who want to avoid mandatory monitoring can go unnoticed for months.

Consider Mark Allen Kutnyak among the unnoticed.
He entered the home of a Montgomery County woman in 1994, sexually assaulted her while he strangled her and repeatedly slammed her head against a wall. He spent 30 months in a state prison for the crime and is classified as a high-risk sex offender.
When he was released in 2008, he moved to Bucks County. That’s where Kutnyak’s blip on the state’s sex offender radar vanished, sometime in 2012.
But Tinicum police didn’t find that out until May 2013, when the state police Megan’s Law Unit asked the department to verify that Kutnyak was still living there, according to a criminal complaint.
Kutnyak hadn’t lived at the Piperville address on file with state police since he was evicted in July 2012, Tinicum police found. Under the state’s Megan’s Law, registered sex offenders have three business days to notify state police about changes in home or work addresses.
But six months before state police asked Tinicum police to check on Kutnyak’s whereabouts, court records show he was declared a fugitive in Bucks County Court after skipping a hearing on a theft charge. He remains missing as of Saturday night.
State and local police say they do their best to follow up on sex offenders who aren’t meeting the law’s requirements because they don’t register with state police or update their personal information as required.
But they want to do better. So the state’s Megan’s Law Unit recently filled a newly created full-time position that is responsible for more quickly confirming the whereabouts of offenders who miss required check-ins.
Other plans to crack down on noncompliant offenders include creating “absconder” task forces that will work with local law enforcement.
Statewide, 556 active offenders of the 15,829 on the public registry — roughly 3.5 percent — were listed as noncompliant as of Saturday, meaning they have failed to check in with state police as required under Megan’s Law.
They include 25 of the 171 homeless offenders, and 14 former inmates who failed to update their registration after they were released from prison as of Saturday, according to the registry. Six the 14 inmates who failed to update their registration have been noncompliant for more than a year, but no arrest warrants have been filed.
Less than one-quarter of noncompliant offenders are listed on the Megan’s Law registry’s website as “absconded,” meaning an arrest warrant has been filed for alleged Megan’s Law violations. That isn’t unusual. Generally, the number of noncompliant offenders is higher — in some counties it’s at least double — the number of absconded offenders.
Without an arrest warrant, though, there’s no immediate way for law enforcement to know that an offender is suspected of not following Megan’s Law reporting requirements.
In Bucks and Montgomery counties, the noncompliance rates generally hover between 3 and 4 percent. Arrest warrants have been filed for seven noncompliant offenders in Bucks and two in Montgomery County, though more offenders are listed as noncompliant, according to the registry.
A review of more than a dozen Bucks and Montgomery county criminal complaints, the Megan’s Law registry and police interviews also found:
  • Registered sex offenders can linger on the noncompliant list for months before their status is returned to compliant, their name is removed from the registry, or an arrest warrant is filed.
  • Among the 18 people in Bucks and Montgomery counties arrested for Megan’s Law violations since last May, nine were noncompliant for at least six months before an arrest warrant was filed, according to court records.
  • As of Saturday, no arrest warrants had been filed for at least four noncompliant offenders listed as last living or working in Bucks and Montgomery counties who are a year or more overdue to update their information with state police.
“It’s an unwieldy system,” said Upper Makefield attorney Marci Hamilton, a leading national advocate for child sex abuse victims. “This is a system that was built for (sex offenders) to take advantage of.”
Megan’s Law requires individuals whose crimes meet certain criteria to register as sex offenders for 15 years, 25 years or for the rest of their lives. They also are required to update personal information in person and be photographed a minimum of once a year depending on the offense, as well as when they move or change jobs.
Pennsylvania requires registered sex offenders to provide information including where they live, work or attend school, and the vehicles they drive. The requirements also apply to out-of-state residents who work or attend school in Pennsylvania.
The Megan’s Law Unit, which oversees the registration process and manages the public registry, processes “several hundred” new and updated registrations each week and an estimated average of 30 to 50 investigation notices are sent to local police for noncompliant offenders each month, said Lt. Todd Harman, the unit’s director. The unit also maintains the public sex offender registry and registry’s website,
In the past, the unit hasn’t followed up after sending investigation notices to local authorities or maintained a record of the notices, Harman said. That situation will change under the new compliance officer, he said.
Harman said investigation notices are mailed several times a week “within hours of the individual’s noncompliance.” But court documents and some local police officers and officials say that isn’t always the case.
Central Bucks Regional Police Lt. Pat Penecale said he doesn’t recall Doylestown ever receiving a request to investigate a noncompliant offender, including one who last updated his information in 2010, according to the state registry.
That sex offender was convicted in Bucks County Court in 2010 of sexually assaulting a 14-year-old Richlandtown girl he met online. He registered with Pennsylvania State Police in August 2010. He was sentenced to 11 months of probation and apparently moved back to Maryland, where he registered as a sex offender, according to court records in that state. The now 29-year-old man is serving a five-year sentence in Maryland for sexually assaulting a minor there.
In January, a Bristol Township police detective called the Megan’s Law Unit to request an investigation notice after learning about a moderate-risk sex offender who has been noncompliant since 2012. The detective started his own investigation before the notice arrived four weeks later, Acting Chief Lt. John Godzieba said.
As of Feb. 21, Middletown police hadn’t received a notice to investigate a noncompliant 35-year-old Philadelphia man classified as a sexually violent predator who told police he works for a Middletown employer, Lt. John Michniewicz said. The offender missed a scheduled in-person registration update with state police in August.
A recent federal study suggests some blame for noncompliance may be placed on the expansion of offenses that require public registration under the Sex Offender Registration and Notification Act. Pennsylvania adopted SORNA in December 2012, a move that added new offenses that require registration and increase the frequency that offenders must update information with police.
The General Accounting Office report released in February 2013 found that SORNA implementation resulted in delays and problems in states, particularly increased workloads related to the frequency that sex offenders must update their registration information.
Inconsistencies and inaccuracies in Megan’s Law registries aren’t unusual, said Andrew Harris, an associate professor in the School of Criminology and Justice Studies at the University of Massachusetts at Lowell and a leading authority on sex offender policy.
“The registry (generally) has gotten so big it’s hard to keep tabs on it,” he said.
Prior to SORNA, most Pennsylvania Megan’s Law offenders were required to register for 10 years and update their information once a year, state police spokesman Adam Reed said. Now, at least 70 percent of the state’s sex offenders must update their registration at least four times a year for life.
Nearly 30 percent of Pennsylvania’s registered sex offenders live in Philadelphia and its suburbs, according to the registry. Of the 4,331 registered offenders in the region, at least 6 percent were listed as noncompliant as of Feb. 10, a rate roughly double the state’s average noncompliance rate.
Nationally, the U.S. Marshal Service’s Behavior Analysis Unit estimates that between 4 percent and 6 percent of registered sex offenders don’t comply with registration laws.
After adopting SORNA, Pennsylvania’s Megan’s Law Unit sent notices to existing and newly registered sex offenders about the new data-gathering requirements in December 2012, Reed said. Offenders had until March 20, 2013, to update information with state police.
After that, latecomers were considered noncompliant and could have been subject to felony charges of failure to register. After the deadline, approximately 850 investigation notices were mailed to local law enforcement agencies, Reed said.
But the number of notices sent to authorities in Bucks and Montgomery counties was unavailable, Reed and Harman said. The notices are produced manually and the data isn’t retained after it’s entered into the national Sex Offender Registry Tool database.
State police also couldn’t provide information on how many Megan’s Law Unit referrals resulted in local investigations and arrest warrants. And Harman said he didn’t have information about the number of investigations or warrants that state police handled involving noncompliant offenders last year.
Still, Horsham police Lt. Jon Clark believes that state police are notifying local authorities about noncompliant offenders faster than they once did.
In May, state police sent Horsham investigation notices about two noncompliant offenders. Police investigated and learned one had died; the other was arrested for Megan’s Law violations.
“It’s not a perfect system,” Clark added, “but at least we have names out there.”


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