INTRO: There are few more vexing problems in criminal justice than how to deal with sex offenders who have served their sentence and returned to the community, especially those who are no longer under parole supervision. Over the past several years, New York State has adopted a number of initiatives designed to monitor or restrict the activities of sex offenders, as well as civilly confine those who are unable to control themselves. All of them place new responsibilities on law enforcement.
SPAWN: Today, we are talking with Beth Devane, director of the Office of Sex Offender Management at the New York State Division of Criminal Justice Services. DCJS maintains the Sex Offender Registry and monitors all aspects of sex offender management. Beth, let’s start from scratch, what is the purpose of the registry, and how does it work.
DEVANE: In brief, the registry was created for public awareness – so people could easily learn if there was a sex offender living in their neighborhood or, for example, if their babysitter had a conviction for a sex offense. Individuals convicted of a sex offense are assigned a risk level by the court and required to register. Those offenders who are a Level 3, or high risk, or a Level 2, a moderate risk, are listed in a publicly available and searchable website. People can enter a name to search that public website. Level 1, or low risk, offenders, are, by statute, not on the public website.
SPAWN: How can people find out if there are Level 2 or Level 3 sex offenders in their neighborhood?
DEVANE: The easiest way is to sign up for what’s called an “NY-ALERT.” This is a free service that allows people to sign up to receive alerts via email, text message or fax whenever a Level 2 or Level 3 offender moves into or out of a community or location of interest to them. Information on how to sign up is on the DCJS homepage at www.criminaljustice.ny.gov.
Additionally, people can log into the registry online at the DCJS web site or call DCJS at 1-800-262-3257.
SPAWN: Is there any way for the public to learn about Level 1 offenders?
DEVANE: Yes. There are two ways.
First, anyone can call DCJS at 1-800-262-3257 and provide us with a name and another identifier – such as exact address or birth date – and then we can disclose whether that person is in the registry, even if that person is a Level 1. So, while currently the Legislature will not allow us to tell you if there are any Level 1 sex offenders in your neighborhood via our website, if someone calls the 800 number and gives the correct information, we can search the registry and tell you whether, for example, John Doe who is a Level 1 sex offender and lives at 10 Main Street is a registered sex offender.
Additionally, law enforcement can disseminate information about sex offenders, including Level 1 offenders, to entities with – quote -- “vulnerable populations related to the nature of the offense committed by such sex offender” – close quote. In other words, if a Level 1 sex offender had victimized a child, law enforcement could provide the local school with his name, approximate address, photograph, etcetera, and the school could then disseminate that information at its discretion.
SPAWN: How many sex offenders are registered in New York?
DEVANE: There are currently over 30,000, and about 7,600 of them are Level 3, or high risk.
SPAWN: What are the requirements or restrictions?
DEVANE: Well, first of all I should point out that only about 5,000 of the more than 30,000 offenders in the registry are on parole or probation for a sex offense. The vast majority are not monitored and we must rely on them to do what they are supposed to do – which is to register, verify their address with DCJS at least once a year (Level 3s and those considered sexual predators have to verify their address in person every 90 days with local law enforcement), provide us with a recent photograph, provide us with their internet information and let us know within 10 days of any change of address.
This may surprise you, but the compliance rate is very high. More than 75 percent comply fully, and completely on their own. Another 7 percent comply, but might be a little late in verifying their address.
Those who don’t comply can be charged with a felony, and we are not at all hesitant about chasing down those offenders. In fact, if someone doesn’t verify their address, we ask police to get a warrant for their arrest. More often than not, law enforcement verifies their address, and much more often than not they are right where they are supposed to be but, for whatever reason, didn’t send in the address verification form.
SPAWN: Are there any restrictions on where sex offenders can live or work?
DEVANE: The Sex Offender Registration Act does not restrict where a registered sex offender may live. However, if the offender is under parole or probation supervision, the conditions of that supervision may, for example, limit the offender from living within 1,000 feet of a school or other facility caring for children. Additionally, there are various local ordinances that restrict where sex offenders can live.
As for employment, the Sex Offender Registration Act bars sex offenders from one and only one vocation: Working on a frozen dessert truck.
SPAWN: Wait a minute. Are you telling me that a sex offender can work in a school or day care center but can’t work on an ice cream truck?
DEVANE: Not exactly. While the only restriction in the sex offender law deals with frozen dessert trucks, there are provisions in other laws that would preclude registered sex offenders from certain jobs. For instance, anyone who works in a school district has to undergo a criminal background check and the state Department of Education determines if someone with a criminal record is suitable for employment in a school.
SPAWN: Let’s back up a second. So, if someone regularly monitors the registry, signs up for NY-ALERTS and makes it their business to know if there are any sex offenders in the vicinity, they are their families are pretty safe, right?
DEVANE: I wish it was that easy, but unfortunately it’s not. While the registry is a vital tool, we don’t want to lull people into a false sense of security. Nothing takes the place of parental supervision and awareness. The fact is, the vast majority of new sex crimes are committed by someone who is NOT in the registry. And child victims of sex crimes are almost always molested by someone they know – such as a neighbor, a teacher, a coach, a member of the clergy, a relative, a friend of the family…Pedophiles are devious and very adept at manipulating their way into a child’s life.
SPAWN: That’s troubling. So how do parents protect their kids?
DEVANE: Parents need to be, if not outright suspicious, then cautious about adults wanting to spend a lot of time with their children. They need to be aware of behavioral changes, age-inappropriate or sexually suggestive comments. They need to be attuned if all of a sudden their child appear fearful of a particular person or situation.
SPAWN: It sounds difficult.
DEVANE: It is difficult, and what I tell parents is, “Go with your gut.” If a bunch of kids are having a sleepover at someone’s house, for example, and for whatever reason you’re leery of someone in that house, your child should stay home – even if it’s offensive to the host. The job of a parent is to protect their child and if something just doesn’t feel right to a parent, that is something the parent needs to trust.
SPAWN: Let’s shift gears a bit. Can a sex offender be “cured.”
DEVANE: Studies on the effectiveness of treatment are mixed, but New York State has a robust treatment program that is part of what we call “civil management.”
SPAWN: What do you mean by “civil management.”
DEVANE: Under a law that took effect in 2007, a sex offender who has completed his or her sentence but suffers from a “mental abnormality” that makes it likely they will re-offend can be confined in a mental institution or subject to what is called “strict and intensive supervision” – which is basically very intense parole supervision.
SPAWN: Who determines if a particular offender suffers from a “mental abnormality.”
DEVANE: Ultimately, a jury. But long before it ever gets to a jury, every sex offender getting out of prison is evaluated mental health professionals. Those who are deemed to have a “mental abnormality” are referred to the attorney general, who can petition a court to civilly manage the individual. The individual is then entitled to a jury trial, and if the jury decides the person does have a “mental abnormality” and does need civil management, the judge determines whether to confine the offender in a mental institution or allow him to remain in the community, but under very close supervision.
SPAWN: Since the law took effect, how many people have been civilly confined?
DEVANE: There are about 140 people confined, and roughly 50 on strict and intensive supervision.
SPAWN: If someone is placed on civil management, how long will they be confined or subject to strict and intensive supervision.
DEVANE: It varies, depending on the offender’s progress in treatment. In any case, anyone who is confined is reviewed annually, and if that annual review finds they are no longer dangerous and no longer in need of confinement, they could be released. Those placed on strict and intensive supervision can petition the court every two years to modify the conditions, or get off SIST all together.
SPAWN: I’ve been talking with Beth Devane, director of the Office of Sex Offender Management at the DCJS. The DCJS website contains resources and information about sex offender’s responsibilities, the registry and civil management. Go to www.criminaljustice.ny.gov and click on the Sex Offenders tab. From there you can search the public registry, view offender counts by county, and you can get information on offender relocation alerts through NY-Alerts . There’s also information about the civil management process, including a flowchart and frequently asked questions. Again, go to the Sex Offenders tab at www.criminaljustice.ny.gov
Thanks for join Mark Spawn for APB New York Chiefs.