New York State has lost track of 467 convicted sex offenders, including rapists and child molesters, despite a law requiring them to register annually for inclusion in the Megan's Law database.
At least 15 sex offenders whose whereabouts are listed as "unknown" by the state's Division of Criminal Justice Services, which is responsible for maintaining the Sex Offender Registry, had their last known addresses on Long Island, where a total of 1,523 offenders are registered. Statewide, authorities have obtained arrest warrants for 200 of the offenders, records show.
"We've established a law that requires society's most cunning of criminals to register on an honor system, and that's what is leading to them disappearing," said Laura Ahearn, executive director of Parents for Megan's Law and the Crime Victims Center, a Stony Brook-based nonprofit organization that advocates for sex offender victims and works to find addresses for missing offenders. "For their victims, it's terrifying to know the offender who victimized them is nowhere to be found."
Of Long Island's 15 offenders listed as "unknown," at least three last provided addresses in Nassau and 12 in Suffolk, records show. But among the hundreds of offenders who failed to register in other parts of the state, some may have made their way to Long Island or New York City, officials said.
A Newsday analysis of DCJS records shows the missing offenders make up a small percentage of the 36,410 overall sex offenders statewide. Some of those ex-convicts have been missing for a year or more, according to records.
Offenders checking in
New York's sex offender database, like those in other states, is dependent on whether sex offenders actually check in with the state -- and whether law enforcement agencies verify the addresses offenders give to the state. Under state law, authorities are not required to personally verify all offender addresses.
The state finds out a sex offender's whereabouts is unknown once that person fails to check in with the state registry on the person's designated annual registration date. The DCJS then notifies the law enforcement agency with jurisdiction in the offender's last known address.
Suffolk County Deputy Police Chief Kevin Fallon said his department has partnered with Parents for Megan's Law to verify sex offenders' addresses. He said there are active warrants in place for the 12 "unknown" people whose last addresses were in Suffolk. Nassau County police said they have no open warrants for offenders who have failed to register. A police spokeswoman declined to comment further.
Of the statewide offenders whose whereabouts are listed as unknown, according to state records:
161 are classified as Level 1 offenders, meaning authorities have deemed their risk of reoffending as "low" based on the crimes they committed, their level of rehabilitation and other factors.
171 are Level 2 offenders, with a "moderate" risk of reoffending.
112 are Level 3 offenders, deemed to have a "high" risk of reoffending.
The records show that the risk of reoffending for the remaining 23 has not been determined.
Failure to annually update home addresses with the state registry is a felony under state law, punishable by up to seven years in prison. Offenders must notify the registry within 10 days of moving. Once an offender violates that law, Janine Kava, DCJS's spokeswoman said, the state sends alerts to the law enforcement agency that originally arrested him or her, or the agency that has jurisdiction at their last known address.
"Offenders who are 'counted' in the unknown category have not complied with the requirement under law to notify the registry of their residence address," Kava said. Their locations are not currently known, she said.
Alerts sent out
The registry "urges" agencies to seek warrants for the offender's arrest if they can't be located, Kava said, and refers cases to the U.S. Marshals Service.
DCJS does not actually go out and look for offenders whose whereabouts are unknown, Kava said, nor can it force any law enforcement agency to do so.
The agency touts its sex offender registry as a valuable tool for the public and law enforcement. It announced this month that more photographs of offenders would be posted in its database to help people recognize them.
"The registry is proactive in its efforts to ensure information is current," Kava said.
Victim advocates and Rep. Steve Israel (D-Huntington), who has secured federal funding for community-based offender verification programs, said the number of offenders whose whereabouts are unknown is far too high.
"New Yorkers deserve much better than this, and the state needs to investigate it and solve it now," Israel said. "We need to ensure that our children are safe from those who could potentially harm them and that victims of past crimes aren't plagued by not knowing the whereabouts of their attackers and abusers."
Federal Megan's Law
Megan's Law, a federal law named after Megan Kanka, 7, of New Jersey, who was raped and killed by a neighbor in 1994, requires convicted sex offenders to be registered with the government, making it easier to track their whereabouts.
Their names are put into databases in every state, allowing the public to do an online check to determine where offenders reside. The federal law requires that convicted sex offenders update their addresses with the state at least once a year. (New York's site is at www.criminaljustice.ny.gov/nsor.)
All states have sex offenders whose whereabouts are listed as unknown, records show, although no agency tracks the overall national number.
"The state of New York and every other state in which sex offenders' whereabouts are unknown should put more pressure on law enforcement agencies to secure and enforce arrest warrants," said Jeremy Reiner, a lawyer, crime victim advocate and victim counselor in Riverhead. "It's a matter of law enforcement making this a priority."
Law enforcement officials also said agencies across the state must work closely to catch offenders who have crossed jurisdictional boundaries.
"It's a real problem, and it's not easy to get a handle on," said one Long Island police official, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to publicly discuss the issue. "These people can drop off the grid very easily, and they might not be caught until and unless they reoffend."
In addition, officials said, some of these agencies have faced budget cuts and do not always prioritize finding missing sex offenders.
For one parent of a sex abuse victim, the number of unknown is frightening.
"These people missing across the state could be anywhere by now," said Joan Morrison-Brown of Garden City, an advocate for more rigorous sex offender tracking, whose daughter was sexually assaulted in Queens in 2002.
"This is a clear indication the system we rely on to keep tabs on these offenders is flawed."