Steps to keep tabs on sex offenders vary widely

THE BALTIMORE SUN

In Calvert County, sheriff's deputies make it a point to drop in several times a year on the people listed on the state's sex-offender registry - just to be sure they still live where they say they do.

Not so in Somerset County. There the sheriff's department doesn't confirm in person the addresses of any registered sex offenders. Officials say they just don't have the manpower.

A survey by The Sun of the state's 23 counties and Baltimore City reveals a wide range of policies to verify the accuracy of the registry for the state's 4,300 convicted sex offenders.

Offenders are required to keep their addresses current with the registry but often don't - as became evident last week when a convicted rapist, Carl Preston Evans Jr., was accused of killing his stepdaughter. A check of records found that he had failed to update his registration for years and that police had never looked for him.

Though registered letters sent to Evans by the state were returned unopened, authorities didn't start searching for Evans until he was charged with stabbing the 13-year-old and setting his Essex rowhouse on fire.

Police arrested him yesterday in Baltimore.

Because Evans was one of 800 registered offenders in the state whose addresses are listed as unknown or in question, the case has drawn new scrutiny to the state's Sex Offender Registry.

The registry is designed to inform communities about convicted rapists, molesters and others who have completed their prison sentences and are living nearby. But Maryland's registry is riddled with flawed and missing information.

The Sun's review found:

Even basic information about the number and types of sex offenders might not always be accurate. For example, there are three sexually violent predators - considered the "worst of the worst" - listed in the state's online registry. But local law enforcement agencies report that their records - based on their own efforts to track the offenders - show twice that many.

Local law enforcement officials say they often have difficulty finding out what registered sex offenders have been convicted of, the age of their victims, and when they were released from prison - especially if the sex offender has moved to Maryland from another state.

Across Maryland, there are hundreds of sex offenders whose addresses have never been confirmed as accurate by authorities. And state law doesn't require authorities to check in person on the whereabouts of sex offenders.

"There has to be a public outrage over this," said Pat Cronin, executive director of the Family Tree, a local nonprofit group dedicated to preventing child abuse and neglect. "If there isn't, there will never be the resources dedicated to it."

Maryland's system has won plaudits from national authorities - including an A-plus grade by Parents for Megan's Law, a national advocacy group - but the ratings are based on how much information is provided to the public on the registry, not on the accuracy of the information.

Other states do even less: California and New York were among those given F's.

Seeking new ideas

Yesterday, the state police superintendent, Col. Thomas E. Hutchins, and Public Safety Secretary Mary Ann Saar said Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. had asked them to work with local police and sheriffs and submit recommendations for making the registry more accurate.

"The registry is an important resource for people in communities to know who the offenders are and where they're living," said Hutchins.

State law first required sex offenders in Maryland to register with authorities in 1996, the year after Congress passed "Megan's Law," which requires states to keep track of registered sex offenders. Citizens can search the registry at www.dpscs.state.md. us/onlineservs/sor.

The law is named for Megan Kanka, a 7-year-old girl from Trenton, N.J., who was raped and murdered in 1994 by her neighbor, a convicted pedophile.

Like the information in most states' registries, the addresses of Maryland's offenders come in large part from the offenders themselves, who are required to confirm their addresses once a year and inform authorities when they move.

The state adds an offender's intended address to the registry when he or she is released from prison or jail or, in some cases, after a hospital stay or court appearance. Depending on their classification, offenders must either report annually to a local law enforcement agency or respond to registered mail from the state or a local agency.

The registry's administrators rely on local law enforcement to investigate when offenders don't respond to registered letters, said David P. Wolinski, the official in charge of the state's registry.

"It's not perfect. ... An offender can give us an address today and pack up the moving van tomorrow," said Wolinski, who is director of the state's Criminal Justice Information System. "Unless someone tells us, we won't know until their annual registration is overdue."

Computer links

The state plans to introduce a new computerized system, aimed at allowing local authorities to update information about sex offenders, Wolinski said. Currently, they send each other information about sex offenders by mail.

"It's a flawed system," said Lt. Robin Roberts, an investigator with the sheriff's department in Wicomico County. This week he noticed eight sex offenders on the state's Web site that he hadn't been informed about, he said.

Prompted by the errors discovered in Evans' case, Wolinski said he will be sending a list of sex offenders to police and sheriff's departments next week asking them to look for discrepancies in the number and type of offenders and for offenders they are already searching for or should be.

Until the July 25 killing of Evans' stepdaughter, there wasn't an investigator assigned to find him.

The 35-year-old convict was registered in October 2001 when he was released from prison, state officials say. The next year when Evans' registration was due, two registered letters from the state to Evans came back unclaimed, Wolinski said.

In December 2002, the state sent a letter to city police asking them to find Evans, Wolinski said. At that point, Evans was listed as "under investigation" on the registry.

However, city police say they never received the state's request for an investigation. Although city police said Evans told them when he moved to Essex in 2003, his address remained listed as "under investigation" on the registry, and county police were never asked by the state to confirm the address.

Wolinski, a retired Baltimore County police lieutenant who took over responsibility for the registry this year, said he was "concerned" about the mix-up. "There was a mistake here," he said.

Errors "are something we battle constantly because we get so much information," said Wolinski, adding that the registry receives nearly 200 address changes each month.

24% fall short

According to Laura Ahearn, executive director of Parents for Megan's Law, about 24 percent of sex offenders fail to meet their state's registry requirements.

And while the organization gave Maryland's registry the top grade for public access, when the group surveyed states about the number of sex offenders failing to meet registry requirements in 2003, Maryland didn't participate, she said.

"Following up with sex offenders is part of the problem," Ahearn said.

The most thorough agencies in Maryland routinely send officers to confirm the addresses of all sex offenders at least once a year, according information gathered through calls by The Sun to police and sheriff's departments.

But at the other end of the spectrum are counties that never confirm in person the addresses of sex offenders.

Lack of resources

In Somerset County, for example, a commander in the sheriff's department says they don't have the resources to physically check the addresses and must rely on registered mail. And in Prince George's County, officers confirm the addresses of about 60 sex offenders each year - about one in 10 of the county's 605 registered offenders.

In Baltimore County, auxiliary police officers make unannounced visits to the addresses of all child sex offenders at least once a year.

In Baltimore, there are currently three detectives assigned to track about 1,500 sex offenders - twice as many sex offenders as any other jurisdiction in Maryland.

Through a combination of visits from detectives and police blitzes in various parts of the city, the 900 child sex offenders can expect an officer to check up on them once a year.

Still, detectives make sure several child sex offenders - including one who takes medication to control his urges - come in to see them every two weeks, even though that's not required, said Don Catterton, one of the detectives assigned to keep the city's sex offender registry current.

However, no one confirms the addresses of the hundreds of sexually violent offenders in Baltimore City and County.

In Charles County, a deputy will check unannounced on a sex offender who is deemed a "high risk" by the department at least four times a year, said Detective Scott Fetteroff.

They have found 15 sex offenders with bad addresses this year - most discovered by visiting the addresses, said Fretteroff.

'Are they dangerous?'

But Fretteroff and other law enforcement officials say they often have trouble tracking down information about the convictions of registered sex offenders.

"The one question I always get from people who call is: 'Are they dangerous?'" said Sgt. William Davis, a commander in the Caroline County Sheriff's Department, which checks the addresses of the 50 registered sex offenders at least once a year.

"I try to tell them what the offender was convicted of, how old the victim was, when they were released from prison and what their history has been with us - whether we've had complaints about them."

Cause for concern

Russell P. Butler, executive director of the Maryland Crime Victims' Resource Center, and other advocates say the public should be concerned about the registry's flaws.

"If it's a priority, we need to figure out why it's not working properly and allocate the resources to make it work," Baker said.

The punishment for a sex offender who doesn't comply with registry requirements - three years in prison and a $5,000 fine - isn't always enough of an incentive, Wolinski said.

"If they're not looking at an officer with a badge," he said, "you know there will be some bad information."

Maryland law requires convicted sex offenders to register their address with the state. Other requirements of the law vary by offense:

A sexually violent predator is classified as such by a judge, usually because of two or more convictions for sex crimes. They must confirm where they are living every 90 days.

A child sex offender, or someone who has been convicted of child sex abuse, typically must register for life.

A sexually violent offender, or someone who is convicted of a first-, second- or third-degree sexual offense such as rape, must confirm his or her address every year.

Someone convicted of a less serious sexual crime, such as solicitation, typically must register annually for 10 years.

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