The first state to come into substantial compliance, is already showing signs of the laws not working, or making things worse!
By Cristin Severance and Denise Alex
Although legislator wants closer tabs kept, cutbacks force shift in priorities
Detective Linda Rinear was knocking on doors, looking for _____. She'd gotten a tip that the 38-year-old registered sex offender wasn't living at the address he'd provided to the Summit County sheriff's office.
The department used to check on every sex offender who moved into its jurisdiction, renewed his or her registration, or reported a change of address - a level of scrutiny that exceeded state requirements.
If the offender wasn't living at the specified house, apartment, hotel or trailer, the department would seek an arrest warrant.
Things are different now.
Like many of its counterparts across Ohio, the Summit County sheriff's office is no longer keeping such close tabs on sex offenders - not by choice, but out of necessity.
Budget cuts tied to lagging tax revenue have forced departments to scale back in many areas, including the monitoring of Ohio's 19,000 registered sex offenders.
It's simply a matter of identifying priorities when resources are limited, said Robert Cornwell, executive director of the Buckeye State Sheriffs' Association, which represents Ohio's 88 county sheriffs.
"I'm not going to take a vandalism report on a hit mailbox rather than respond to a burglary in progress," he said. "We try our very best to enforce all laws, but we have to prioritize."
Cornwell said recession-related budget cuts have forced 70 percent of the state's sheriff's departments to lay off deputies - hundreds in all. To make matters worse, he said, even before the economy soured, almost every department in Ohio had reduced its headcount through attrition.
In this environment, sheriff's departments have to drop non-statutory functions - that is, things they'd like to do, and the public would like them to do - just to keep up with those mandated by law.
Under state law, sheriff's deputies are required to visit only so-called Tier III offenders - those convicted of the most serious crimes - and, even then, only once a year or when they change addresses.
- This is how it should be, since 5% or less are truly dangerous, which is probably most Tier III offenders. Why monitor all 100% when not all are dangerous?
State Sen. Nina Turner (Email), D-Cleveland, is pushing legislation that would require those offenders to register - and be checked - more frequently. That would place an even greater, if not impossible, burden on sheriffs statewide, Cornwell said.
The Franklin County sheriff's office, for example, already has its hands full keeping track of the more than 850 Tier III offenders in its jurisdiction. Last year, the five detectives spent all their time - and then some - verifying those individuals' addresses. The department ended up paying $150,000 in overtime just for that.
Chief Deputy Steve Martin recently told The Dispatch that checking on Franklin County's nearly 800 Tier I and Tier II offenders "would carry an astronomical cost."
The Summit County sheriff's office, headquartered in economically distressed Akron, has laid off 30 deputies so far. The four-person unit assigned to watch the county's 900-plus registered sex offenders has been cut in half, forcing the remaining detectives to abandon their longstanding practice of routinely checking the whereabouts of Tier I and Tier II offenders.
"It's just frustrating because we feel like we're just spinning in circles," said Sgt. Scott Cottle, a spokesman for department. "We just put out one fire after another, and we can never get ahead of the game."
Cottle worries about possible repercussions.
"If these sex offenders know that we're not going to be checking addresses anymore, what's the point of giving us your real address?"
Some of the same concerns exist in other Ohio counties - even those with relatively small offender populations.
Meigs County, a largely rural county along the Ohio River, has fewer than three dozen registered offenders, but that doesn't mean the local sheriff's office is any better equipped to visit the addresses they provided.
"We have limited staff," said Meigs County Sheriff Robert Beegle. "Basically, we can't be proactive. We have to be reactive."
A few weeks ago, the department got some help from the U.S. Marshals Service, the Ohio Adult Parole Authority and the Ohio Bureau of Criminal Identification & Investigation. Under a program called Operation Neighborhood Watch, the agencies joined Beegle's deputies in a two-day sweep of the county.
"Any time you're talking about sex offenders, especially ones that have preyed on children, we want to make sure they are actually living where they say they are living and not re-offending," said Cathy Jones, acting U.S. marshal for the southern district of Ohio.
_____ was right where he said he'd be - in a trailer with his mother, his 9-year-old daughter and several other family members.
_____ was ordered to register as a sex offender after being convicted of unlawful sexual conduct with a minor. He said he was 18 when he had sex with a 14-year-old who lied about her age.
"What I did - I didn't do it on purpose," he said. "It just happened."
_____, now 29, said he hasn't been able to land a job because of his status as a registered sex offender. Even so, he said he's committed to keeping the authorities apprised of his whereabouts, as required by the judge who sentenced him.
- And again, this proves the laws are punishment!
Do other offenders obey the rules?
"I guarantee you they don't."
He was right.
Meigs County had 35 sex offenders living within its borders when the sweep was conducted. The task force determined that 11 of them were out of compliance.
Three men were arrested for failing to register, and six others were taken into custody on other violations.
Back in Akron, Summit County sheriff's detective Linda Rinear spent the rest of the day looking for the subject of the tip she'd received - _____, convicted of second-degree rape in 1990.
Rinear eventually found a man who described himself as _____'s roommate. He said _____ hadn't been home for five days.
He showed her some clothes that he said belonged to the offender, but he wouldn't sign an affidavit stating that _____ lived there.
- Can't say I blame him, I would not sign a damning piece of paper like this either.
The next day, Rinear learned that _____ had left Ohio for North Carolina.
He's now on the sex-offender registry in that state.