The following news article was originally published in the Wall Street Journal on September 3, 2009.
Sex-Registry Flaws Stand Out
By RYAN KNUTSON and JUSTIN SCHECK
The case of Phillip Garrido, who allegedly held Jaycee Dugard in his backyard for 18 years despite monthly law-enforcement visits, is forcing California officials to acknowledge a fundamental problem with the state's sex-offender registry: The list keeps expanding, while the number of officials who monitor sex offenders has grown at a much slower rate.
There are now so many people on the registry it's difficult for law enforcement to effectively track them all, and "it's more helpful for law enforcement to know...who the highest-risk offenders are," said Janet Neeley, a deputy California attorney general and member of the state's sex offender board.
A December study of roughly 20,000 registered sex offenders on parole in California found 9% posed a "high risk" of reoffending, and 29% posed a "moderate-high" to "high" risk, said Ms. Neeley. But law-enforcement officials and academics say vast resources are spent monitoring nonviolent offenders rather than keeping closer tabs on more-dangerous ones.
California's sex-offender registry has ballooned to more than 90,000 people now from about 45,000 in 1994, according to the California attorney general's office. Not only has the number of law-enforcement officers failed to keep pace, but recent state budget cuts have forced some local agencies to cut officers assigned to sex offenders, according to the California Commission on Peace Officer Standards and Training.
The Santa Clara County Sheriff's Office, for example, said funding cuts have forced it to field only five officers dedicated to tracking sex offenders in the county, down from eight officers five years ago.
Last year, California's Sex Offender Management Board criticized the system as it stands in a 225-page assessment, highlighting failures in the collection and analysis of data on sex offenders. It's "difficult if not impossible" to track the effectiveness of registry laws, the report said.
Mr. Garrido, who allegedly kidnapped the 11-year-old girl in 1991, was considered high-risk because of a 1977 conviction for rape and kidnapping. But he received about the same number of visits from officers at his Antioch, Calif., home as the 200 or so other sex offenders in Antioch and adjacent Pittsburg, said the Contra Costa County Sheriff, even though many weren't convicted of violent offenses. During dozens of visits to Mr. Garrido's home, authorities never found the tents and shacks hidden behind a backyard fence.
The growing sex-offender list can dilute the amount of attention on the most dangerous offenders, said Nora Demleitner, the dean of Hofstra University Law School who studies sentencing. Some sex offenders "tend to be not dangerous at all," she said. "You have them register as sex offenders, so when you're law enforcement, all these people look the same. If you had much more focused sex-offender laws, maybe they would have been bothered to go into the shack" in Mr. Garrido's back yard.
California has been trying to sharpen its focus, but federal and state laws passed in 2006 offer conflicting rules for monitoring sex offenders, Ms. Neeley said.
Under its law, California has chosen to use a program called Static 99, which categorizes sex offenders based on their likelihood to reoffend. To predict risk, it looks at things like the nature of the crime, the offender's relationship with the victim and whether the offender has been able to form long-term intimate relationships. But the system hasn't been introduced by most local jurisdictions for those convicted before 2007.
Provisions in the federal Adam Walsh Act aim to move monitoring in the opposite direction, so that it's based solely on an offender's type of conviction, not on a complex assessment of risk.
That's problematic, said Jill Levenson, an associate professor at Lynn University in Florida who studies sex-offender registries, since it "overestimates risk for most people, and underestimates risk for people who pleaded down," or struck plea deals by admitting to lower-level crimes.
Now, the state Sex Offender Management Board is recommending that California forgo some federal funds and not adopt the law, which would add to the number of crimes requiring registration.
"There is no available evidence to indicate that expanding California's list of registerable crimes would promote public safety," the board wrote in a recommendation, noting the federal law would create at least $32 million in costs to the attorney general's office and law-enforcement agencies without improving the system.
Write to Ryan Knutson at firstname.lastname@example.org and Justin Scheck at email@example.com