California has lost track of thousands of sex offenders
Updated: Feb 15, 2019
SAN JOSE – California has lost track of nearly half its sex offenders, despite a state law requiring rapists and child molesters to register each year and be included in the Megan's Law database.
At least 27,577 sex offenders, or 39 percent of the 70,631 ex-cons currently required to register in California, may be "out of compliance," according to state data provided to The Associated Press.
"We don't know where they are," acknowledged Margaret Moore, who until recently ran the state's sex offender registry in Sacramento.
A closer look at the numbers revealed the department also doesn't know the whereabouts of another 5,719 offenders who "cannot be accurately categorized." Many never registered as required after leaving prison, and most have not been heard from since 1995, said Norm Pierce, manager of the Violent Crime Information Center.
All told, California is missing 33,296 offenders, or 44 percent of the 76,350 required to register, according to the data provided to the AP after months of requests.
Failing to register is in most cases a felony that could put high-risk offenders in jail for up to 3 more years, but most police departments aren't actively enforcing the law.
Megan's law databases are designed to help the public and police keep track of some of the state's most dangerous criminals. But in California, no one audits the database for accuracy. No one knows how many sex offenders never registered after leaving prison. State Justice Department officials can't even say how much the program costs.
Megan's law was named after 7-year-old Megan Kanka, a New Jersey girl who was raped and killed by a child molester who moved in across the street. All 50 states have similar laws designed to warn communities about the presence of such ex-cons.
But the usefulness of the database in California – and most other states – is dependent on whether the sex offenders actually check in with police – and whether overworked law enforcement agencies follow up to see if the information is correct.
"The law puts the responsibility for accuracy on the felons," Moore said. "It makes it very difficult to track."
The situation angers Laura Ahearn, executive director of Parents For Megan's Law, a nonprofit, national victims' rights group. She said people have a misplaced faith in the database.
"It's really unacceptable that the registry is not as accurate as it should be and people in California should be outraged by that," Ahearn said. "People have this false sense of what Megan's law guarantees and they just fall into this illusion. They're not crying out because they're believing that everything is just fine and it's really not."
Among the missing is repeat child molester Richard Flick, who was freed from Atascadero State Hospital in November 1999 on a legal technicality.
Convicted in 1982 of molesting three young children at his Fullerton home and again in 1993 of molesting a 5-year-old girl in Corona, Flick still hadn't resolved his sexual attraction to children, the hospital staff warned. Flick himself said it would be "disastrous" to be released without supervision. "I'd be a fool to walk out there on my own," he said.
But a search of the database turned up nothing.
California's Justice Department touts its sex offender database as a valuable tool for the public – it announced recently that information is now updated daily and is available in 13 languages.
But when he was presented with the AP's findings – the first analysis of the database's accuracy that agency officials said had ever been done – Attorney General Bill Lockyer acknowledged changes are necessary.
"Having self-regulation is fine if there's effective oversight," said Lockyer, who stopped short of saying California lacks such oversight.
"Our system is inadequate, woefully inadequate," he said. "It can only be improved by putting money into the local law enforcement agencies. It's a matter of resources."
San Jose spends $600,000 a year on five officers, a sergeant and a civilian analyst who work full-time knocking on doors, searching the Web and otherwise keeping tabs on their 2,700 rapists and child molesters. They know where nearly every one of their sex offenders live and work.
Most other local efforts are less organized, inadequately funded and understaffed.
"We could definitely use some help," said detective Terry Chew, the only officer dedicated full-time to tracking Sacramento's 1,945 registered sex offenders.
Chew believes at least 300 haven't checked in for more than a year, but he isn't sure. "There's so many of them out there, it's hard to keep track."
Some states are more proactive. In Washington, the first to implement a Megan's law, law enforcement goes to the sex offenders each year to confirm their information, rather than relying on the ex-cons to report in.
Of Washington's 17,105 offenders, only 10 percent, 1,781, couldn't be found by sheriff's deputies, according to Toni Korneder, Washington's Criminal History Records Manager.
Nationwide, the databases fall short of their promise, Ahearn said.
"It's not only in California, but it's across the entire nation. We're expecting sex offenders to be reporting their addresses and that's the problem," Ahearn said. "Megan's Law is an unfunded mandate and law enforcement is not given the resources they need."
With a $34.8 billion deficit in California, more funding is unlikely – even from a tough-on-crime governor.
And while Gray Davis' spokesman praised the database as highly popular, he also sought to distance the governor from responsibility for its problems.
"This is not our program," Byron Tucker said. "I know the governor is supportive of this program. Obviously there's room for improvement."
People who move into new neighborhoods or who want to check out neighbors, teachers or coaches are often frustrated to learn how limited the available information is.
Californians can search by last name, ZIP code or county, and see a photo of the registrant, along with the name, birthdate, type of crime and physical description including any tattoos. But the public isn't allowed to see the offenders' addresses, and with most ZIP codes including more than 6,000 residents, pinpointing offenders is nearly impossible.
Also, only police can see whether the registration is current – or whether the offender hasn't been heard from in years.
In San Jose, police can instantly identify every known molester living in an area as soon as they learn of a missing child.
Last year, when a 7-year-old girl was raped, Sgt. Tim Porter ran a list of every sex offender who fit the suspect's description and who lived or worked within one mile of the attack.
"Every single one of them was in compliance," Porter said. "Because of our record-keeping system and our monthly audits, when we have to pull a list of suspects, it's fairly accurate."
But with nearly half the state's sex offenders missing from the database, most other agencies can't respond as well or quickly.
"We'd have a list, but it wouldn't be accurate," said Officer Frank Alliger in Oakland, where no one works full-time on the registry and no compliance checks are done on the city's 1,500 convicted sex offenders.
Lockyer said persuading police and sheriff's departments to spend more on crime prevention is key – but he's aware of no requests for more state money to improve the accuracy of the database.
The situation is unacceptable to former Assemblywoman Barbara Alby, the child advocate who wrote California's Megan's law.
"I'm appalled," she said of the database's inaccuracies. "We've got to put some teeth in the law for law enforcement. We should tie some of their funding to making sure this is getting done."
By Kim Curtis - ASSOCIATED PRESS
Published - January 7, 2003