Megan's Law database still in disarray

Friday, February 6, 2004

SAN FRANCISCO -- In the year since an Associated Press investigation found that California had lost track of more than 33,000 sex offenders, the state has made only minor improvements in the way it maintains its Megan's Law database.

The AP report in January 2003 found that many rapists and child molesters had failed to keep authorities apprised of their whereabouts or did not register at all.

Attorney General Bill Lockyer agreed at the time that the system had broken down, and said it would cost at least $15 million a year to track down the missing.

But the money never came through, and probably won't anytime soon, given California's budget crisis.

And dozens of reform bills prompted by the AP investigation never became law, as politicians focused on the recall campaign that put Arnold Schwarzenegger in the governor's office.

Lockyer's agency did deliver on a pledge to work more closely with law enforcement authorities to keep the database of 67,000 ex-convicts more accurate.

In the year since the AP report, improved record-keeping has determined that more than 12,000 of the unaccounted-for sex offenders had died, were deported, were back behind bars or had moved out of state.

As of Jan. 30, 33 percent of the state's sex offenders had failed to check in with police, down from 44 percent a year earlier.

But that's still 22,060 missing rapists and child molesters, all of whom are committing the felony of failing to register. And few police departments spend the time and money it would take to put them back in prison.

"The budget is just killing everybody," said Kern County Sheriff's Detective Dona Wood, who can only afford to call around and check an address after a sex offender disappears. "You can propose all you want, but if you don't have the money, it's not going to work."

Lockyer's spokeswoman said many hours of overtime were spent cleaning up the numbers. "We've made many improvements to the accuracy of the information in the Megan's Law database, but we still have work to do," Hallye Jordan said.

While Schwarzenegger also is "concerned about the accuracy of the database," according to his spokeswoman Ashley Snee, he has not decided whether to support more money to enforce Megan's Law.

California is not unique in this regard. Even the biggest supporters of Megan's Law say the system is fundamentally flawed across the nation, since almost all states rely on convicted sex offenders to check in with law enforcement, and few agencies provide the resources to follow up.

A bill proposed by Democratic state Sen. Dean Florez would have required police to personally check in with sex offenders at their homes once a year. "The current 'honor' system of having sex offenders check in with local law enforcement has proven itself ineffective in tracking sexual predators," Florez said.

But that bill died. Other bills that have not passed would require police to confirm the addresses of offenders; would make the database Internet accessible, which 40 other states already do; and would provide state and local officials with $30 million for Megan's Law enforcement.

Only three minor changes were signed into law -- two of them to avoid losing federal funding. Those measures require child pornographers to register and give college police the ability to warn the public about sex offenders. The third gave school district police access to the database.

"It's heartbreaking that nothing is being done," said a 64-year-old Novato woman who was raped by Patrick Ghilotti and is terrified because he is about to be released. "They're turning their backs on us. It's a law and no one's enforcing it."

In fact, state officials have gone to great lengths to remind citizens that the database is inaccurate.

People who search the database can now see whether an offender has failed to register, and for how long. Also, the site carries this disclaimer in red type: "The Department of Justice makes no representation, either implied or express, that all information on this site is accurate or complete."

Since 1946, California has required rapists and child molesters to register their names, addresses, photographs and other personal information with local law enforcement. Since 1996, thanks to Megan's Law, the public can look up information on the sex offenders.

The law is named for 7-year-old Megan Kanka of New Jersey, who was raped and killed by a child molester who had moved in across the street. All states have similar laws to warn communities about the presence of sex offenders.

Respond to this story

Posting a comment requires free registration: