Monday, March 3, 2014
Megan's Lawbreakers Lack of manpower, communication means lack of enforcement
The second in a two-day series about enforcement of Megan's Law requirements.
Posted: Monday, February 24, 2014
For two months last year, state police lost track of a 41-year-old former Bensalem resident and convicted child rapist. When he was later found, he wasn't arrested on Megan’s Law violations.
Why? No arrest warrant had been filed for Jamie Lee Herr, a Lancaster County native who hadn't updated his address and other personal information with state police as required by law four times a year.
Herr was found in October in Lancaster County, where he was taken into custody on a parole violation. Two months earlier, he had been considered noncompliant with Megan's Law in Bensalem, where he had been living.
It wasn't the first time Herr didn't do what was required by Megan's Law after being listed on the state registry in 2010.
In 2012, he pleaded guilty in Lancaster County for failing to comply with reporting requirements and was sentenced to 11 to 23 months in prison, according to online court records.
But without an arrest warrant, officials in that county didn't realize Herr was noncompliant with Megan's Law when he was arrested in October, said Mark Wilson, Lancaster’s chief of adult probation. And Lancaster County couldn't pursue violation charges against Herr since he was registered as living in Bensalem, Wilson said.
State police didn't file charges against Herr either, although they could have done so with approval from the Bucks County District Attorney's Office, state police said. But it would be "very unusual" for them to do that without notifying Bensalem, Lancaster District Attorney Craig Stedman said.
The difficulty with filing violation charges against sex offenders who are found in another jurisdiction and aren't following the law is a concern with enforcement of the Megan's Law system, experts say.
Other concerns with the law include:
• The state's Megan's Law Unit is responsible for administering the registration process and managing the public registry for more than 15,000 sex offenders. But enforcement responsibility lies mostly with local law authorities, who have limited resources.
• While state police send requests to local law enforcement to look into noncompliant offenders, they don't routinely follow up on the outcomes.
• State and local police face no deadlines for referring, initiating or completing an investigation into a suspected Megan’s Law violator.
• Local authorities have complete discretion over whether to investigate and file criminal charges for Megan’s Law violations, state police said.
• Until recently, state police didn't have a dedicated officer solely responsible for compliance monitoring or additional federal funding for compliance efforts resulting from the state’s implementation of stricter federal sex offender guidelines.
As a result, months can pass before police start checking into the whereabouts of a noncompliant offender, according to a review of criminal complaints involving suspected Megan's Law violators, theMegan's Law registry and police interviews.
Most of Pennsylvania’s more than 15,000 registered sex offenders — 96 to 97 percent — are listed as compliant on the Megan's Law registry. That means most offenders follow monitoring requirements, which include at least annual in-person registration with state police. Megan's Law offenders can be required to register their addresses and other personal information for 15 years, 25 years or lifetime.
A registered sex offender can be found noncompliant for many reasons, but typically it’s for failure to appear for a mandatory update, Pennsylvania State Police spokesman Adam Reed said. Nearly 75 percent of Pennsylvania's Megan's Law offenders must update their registration every three months for the rest of their lives.
But missing a mandatory update doesn’t automatically mean an individual faces criminal charges.
“If an offender remains at the same address, and all information previously reported remains current, the investigating agency may elect to ensure the offender verifies, but take no other enforcement action,” Reed said.
At least a few Bucks and Montgomery county offenders regularly ping-pong between compliant and noncompliant without violation charges being filed, according to registry records and online court records.
CHECKS & BALANCES
When a sex offender fails to update information, the state police Megan’s Law Unit notifies police where the offender lives. Sometimes that is the state police.
“Every effort is made to do so in a timely manner,” said Lt. Todd Harman, director of Pennsylvania’s Megan’s Law Unit program.
That doesn't always happen, as was the case with Herr and Bensalem.
But Bristol Township Acting Police Chief Lt. John Godzieba believes that state police are “fairly prompt” in sending investigation requests. Delays, said Godzeiba, can be blamed on state police relying on regular "snail" mail — not email or registered mail.
Whether police file charges for alleged violations depends on the circumstances, Middletown police Lt. John Michniewicz said.
Middletown didn't press charges last year against two out-of-state noncompliant sex offenders who worked in the township, Michniewicz said. The men had been at least one year overdue updating registrations with state police, but the department opted to refer their findings back to state police for further investigation, Michniewicz said.
Registered sex offenders, including those on parole or probation, are mailed reminder notices about upcoming mandatory in-person updates, state police said.
The Pennsylvania Board of Probation and Parole, which oversees about 2,700 sex offenders, is notified about noncompliant offenders through the national database Sex Offender Registry Tool, spokeswoman Sherry Tate said.
Before the state implemented SORNA in 2012, the parole board reviewed thousands of cases to determine if it was supervising offenders who now would be required to register under the new law, Tate said. The federal law designed to create a national sex offender registration system to better track offenders increases the number of offenses that required registration and the frequency of mandatory updates.
But computer problems forced staff to complete some of the registrations on paper, which may have contributed to notification delays for state police, Tate added.
“Now, we get a monthly list of offenders who are not in compliance from Pennsylvania State Police and we check to see if they are under supervision,” Tate said. “If so, we work to get them back in compliance.”
Upper Makefield attorney Marci Hamilton, recognized as a national legal expert in child sexual abuse, believes sex offender registries provide the public with false comfort.
“Law enforcement doesn’t like these lists because it makes them look ineffective,” she said. “No police department has the resources to adequately track offenders once they are out of prison.”
Unless registered sex offenders are under court-ordered supervision, they are essentially on an “honor system” when it comes to checking in with state police and providing accurate information, added Laura Ahearn, executive director of Parents for Megan’s Law. The Stony Brook, N.Y., nonprofit center provides assistance on Megan’s Law related issues.
“What we have found is there are efforts to keep the registry up to date, but unless the state gives ... the resources, you will find it’s out of date,” Ahearn said. “If you want an updated and accurate registry, it has to be funded.”
The head of Bucks County’s leading victim advocacy organization agrees that without proper resources and manpower overseeing offenders as closely as they should is difficult.
“It's the intent of the law versus the letter of the law," said Kathy Bennett, associate director of the Network of Victim Assistance in Bucks County. "Once an offender is off probation or parole, there is less oversight."
In states like Pennsylvania, where Megan’s Law responsibility is divided between state and local authorities, a "very messy and complicated system" is created, said Cynthia Calkins, an associate professor of psychology at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City.
“We set up this system that offenders have to check in and we have to keep track of them and note address changes, but people at the system level don’t have the resources to keep up,” Calkins said.
Generally, Megan’s Law enforcement is better when state police are responsible since they more likely have available resources, law enforcement experts said.
But Pennsylvania’s Megan’s Law Unit of 29 employees lacks the staffing necessary for large-scale, regular random compliance checks, said Doug Denney, chief of the Mid-Atlantic Region’s Sex Offender Investigations branch of the U.S. Marshals Service. But that situation is changing.
Last year, Pennsylvania was awarded $360,000 in new federal funding earmarked for states that adopted the federal sex offender registration law. The money came from a 10-percent penalty assessed against states that have not substantially implemented SORNA.
About $40,000 of the money will be used to create absconder task forces, which will investigate noncompliant offenders. State police will run the task forces and coordinate with local authorities in areas with high numbers of noncompliant offenders, said Robert Merwine, director of the Office of Criminal Justice System Improvements for the Pennsylvania Commission on Crime and Delinquency. The funding will cover officer overtime.
The rest of the funding will be used for training police how to register and verify sex offenders and electronically connecting the state’s CAPTOR system, which electronically manages incarcerated and paroled offender information, and the SORT system, an electronic database of registered sex offenders, Merwine said.
State police recently hired a full-time Megan’s Law compliance officer who is responsible for monitoring the sex offender registry for noncompliance and following up on investigation notices sent to local authorities, Harman said. The officer will also work with local and federal officials to conduct compliance sweeps, Harman said.
Previously, compliance monitoring was only one of the duties of a Megan’s Law officer, Harman said.
“Given the increase in the size of the registry, and the potential for greater numbers of offenders to fall from compliance due to more onerous reporting requirements, a dedicated position was proposed and approved,” he added.
BRING IN THE MARSHALS
Sometimes police need help tracking down noncompliant offenders, so they call in the U.S. Marshal Service.
This was done last year for convicted rapist Christopher Keefer, who was eventually apprehended in July living in Bristol Township. The former Philadelphia man was considered missing for more than two years after failing to update his registration. He was convicted of raping a 13-year-old boy in 1996.
Keefer was the only noncompliant sex offender in Bucks or Montgomery counties the U.S. marshals helped apprehend during the last fiscal year.
Since 2006, the U.S. Marshals Service has assisted state and local authorities with locating and apprehending the highest risk noncompliant offenders. The agency’s sex offender investigation units provide overtime funding and manpower to state and local police, said Richard Kelly, chief inspector for the U.S. Marshal Service’s National Sex Offender Targeting Center.
In Pennsylvania last year, the marshals participated in 12 operations and assisted with more than 2,000 sex offender compliance checks and 195 arrests of Megan’s Law violators, said the U.S. Marshals Service Denney. Most suspects arrested were in the Philadelphia region, Denney said, which boasts the state’s largest number of registered and noncompliant sex offenders.
But the last time the marshals participated in a compliance check operation involving Bucks County was more than three years ago, when it targeted 143 high-risk sex offenders in Bucks and two other counties, Denney said. The five-week detail found 11 noncompliant offenders.
“There are people who go to great lengths to hide that they aren’t where they say they are,” Denney added. “Those types of people, you might not find, unless you’re doing a compliance check.”