By Jo Ciavaglia
Most registered sex offenders in the U.S. follow Megan’s Law requirements. After all, they want to avoid felony charges and additional prison time associated with noncompliance, according to legal and criminal experts.
But a high compliance rate does not automatically mean they are following the rules, said one sex offender behavior expert. Research suggests sex offenders, who often face difficulty re-entering the community, are at a high risk for re-arrest, though rarely for another sex offense.
Administrative backlogs with the state Megan’s Law registries, which track most sex offenders, are “very common,” experts said. Mostly the backlog is related to policies lawmakers put in place without providing adequate resources or input from law enforcement, they said.
Adding to the challenge of monitoring sex offenders is often the offenders are part of a mobile population.
The transient nature of sex offenders has been linked to increased absconding and recidivism, and thus decreased community safety, according to Andrew Harris, an associate professor in the School of Criminology and Justice Studies at the University of Massachusetts at Lowell and a leading authority on sex offender policy.
Transience also can compromise the ability of law enforcement agents to closely supervise sex offenders without a permanent address.
Pennsylvania is among the states with a high compliance rate among registered sex offenders who appear on its Megan’s Law registry. Compliance rates in the state are typically 96 to 97 percent meaning about only 3 to 4 percent of the more than 15,000 offenders aren’t following monitoring rules. In New Jersey 2.5 percent of the 3,970 registered sex offenders are fugitives, according to police and state statistics.
But among the more than 500 non-compliant sex offenders on Pennsylvania’s registry, fewer than one quarter have active arrest warrants for Megan’s Law violations.
How states determine Megan’s Law compliance varies, but the only accurate measurement is through spot checks and audits, Harris said. A high compliance rate for a state’s sex offender registry doesn’t mean the information is accurate since it’s not unheard of for offenders to provide false addresses, Harris said.
“It’s not uncommon for people to flip out of compliance,” he said. “Just because you show up at a police station and verify your address, doesn't mean you aren't up to something.”
Most non-compliant sex offenders are not willfully avoiding registration, said Harris and Cynthia Calkins, an associate professor of psychology at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York. More often it is problems within the system that oversees offenders and a lack of knowledge about the rules.
“(Offenders) simply don’t know. Their lives are unstable. They have to find jobs, housing, they may or may not be able to live with family,” Calkins said. “They don’t always have a stable address and frequent moves may be part and parcel of living in the community.”
Local municipalities had tried to restrict where convicted sex offenders could live, but the Pennsylvania Supreme Court in 2011 struck down as unconstitutional such local laws.
Available research on sex offenders who fail to follow registration requirements suggests they are no greater risk for committing another sex crime than the offenders who are compliant, Calkins said. Harris added that studies show only a “very small” number of noncompliant offenders are attempting to evade detection to commit sex crimes.
But among a “relatively large group” of noncompliant sex offenders are the so-called chronic rule breakers whom Harris said research shows have a relatively high risk of recidivism involving other crimes.
Available research on sex offender recidivism rates is mixed but does show it’s typically low for additional sex crimes.
National data suggests that between 12 and 24 percent — or between one and three of every 10 sex offenders — are known to have repeated crimes, according to The Center for Sex Offender Management, a national project supporting state and local jurisdictions in the effective management of sex offenders. But the center points out the rates are commonly underestimated because the crimes often go unreported.
A report released last year by the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections shows a little more than half of paroled sex offenders end up re-arrested or back in prison, but rarely for a sex crime.
According to the report, nearly half of state inmates released in 2008 who were convicted of forcible rape were either re-arrested or sent back to prison within three years, compared to nearly 60 percent of all inmates. Among state inmates convicted of statutory rape and “other” sexual offenses, the recidivism rate was 50 percent and 60 percent, respectively, for the same three years.
Those recidivism rates are lower than most other inmates convicted originally of robbery (63 percent), murder or manslaughter (52 percent), drug offenses (57 percent) and burglary (72 percent), according to the 2013 report.