Track­ing vi­o­lent of­fend­ers: Reg­istries grow, but do they work?

Daily Freeman (Kingston, NY) - - NATION+WORLD - By John Seewer

In the des­per­ate hours after a Univer­sity of Toledo stu­dent disappeared while bi­cy­cling this sum­mer, her friends scanned the state’s list of sex of­fend­ers and started knock­ing on doors. But their search didn’t lead them down the road to an ex-con who had spent time in prison for ab­duct­ing an­other woman — be­cause he had never been con­victed of a sex crime.

Now the fam­ily of Sierah Joughin, who in­ves­ti­ga­tors say was ab­ducted and killed by a neigh­bor with a hid­den past, wants Ohio law­mak­ers to fol­low the lead of at least seven other states that track all sorts of vi­o­lent of­fend­ers.

“If you’re try­ing to get back in so­ci­ety and you’re try­ing to be a pro­duc­tive mem­ber of so­ci­ety, you have to own what you did,” said Joughin’s mother, Sheila Va­c­u­lik. “You’re there for a rea­son, and you put your­self there for a rea­son.”

The emo­tional pull of crimes that spawned sex of­fender reg­istries in the 1990s has brought about th­ese more pub­licly ac­ces­si­ble lists that keep tabs on a wider range of of­fend­ers — from mur­der­ers to meth users — once they’re out of prison. A na­tion­wide re­view by The As­so­ci­ated Press found that such reg­istries have grown over the past decade and that more pro­pos­als are be­ing con­sid­ered.

Back­ers say help­ing peo­ple know more about their neigh­bors will make them safer. Yet stud­ies have shown of­fender reg­istries do lit­tle to re­duce crime. Anti-do­mes­tic vi­o­lence groups in states that have con­sid­ered ex­panded reg­istries sug­gest that money spent to main­tain them would be bet­ter used on pro­grams to stop vi­o­lence be­fore it hap­pens. Keep­ing sex of­fender lists up­dated alone costs well over $1 mil­lion each year for many states, a price par­tially cov­ered by fees of­fend­ers must pay.

Some re­searchers con­tend the lists, search­able on­line, can pre­vent of­fend­ers from find­ing jobs and homes, mak­ing it more likely they’ll of­fend again.

“When some­one comes out of prison, we want them to be suc­cess­ful,” said Alissa Ack­er­man, a crim­i­nal jus­tice pro­fes­sor at the Univer­sity of Washington. “We want them to be part of so­ci­ety. Putting peo­ple on reg­istries like this makes it next to im­pos­si­ble to do.”

Vin­cent Brum­ley, who was re­leased from an Illi­nois prison in 2015 after serv­ing 27 years for his role with two oth­ers who kid­napped and killed a man, said few em­ploy­ers will give him a chance after he tells them of his past and they learn he’s on the state’s reg­istry.

“That’s all they see me as,” he said. “They don’t know what I was con­victed of, or if I was guilty. I did my time. Why hold me back?”

Some reg­istries track only peo­ple con­victed of mur­der or vi­o­lent crimes against chil­dren. Mon­tana first ex­panded its list to add non-sex of­fend­ers in 1995 and now in­cludes those con­victed of mur­der, ag­gra­vated as­sault, as­sault with a weapon, and ar­son.

In­di­ana, Illi­nois, Kansas, Oklahoma and Vir­ginia re­quire at least some vi­o­lent of­fend­ers to reg­is­ter, while Florida has a list for “ha­bit­ual of­fend­ers” con­victed of felonies that aren’t sex crimes. The on­line reg­istry in Kansas logs 1,600 views each day and gen­er­ates a steady stream of tips, mostly in­volv­ing sex and drug of­fend­ers, said John Gaunt, who over­sees it for the Kansas Bureau of In­ves­ti­ga­tion.

The laws force of­fend­ers to keep their where­abouts up­dated for any­where from 10 years to life, de­pend­ing on the sever­ity of the crime.

Ohio law­mak­ers look­ing into the idea have not set­tled on a plan and say they want to make sure law en­force­ment backs it.

Penn­syl­va­nia and Texas are among states that have de­bated es­tab­lish­ing a do­mes­tic vi­o­lence reg­istry within the past few years.

A few reg­istries go be­yond vi­o­lent crimes. Illi­nois, Ten­nessee and Min­nesota have them for meth-re­lated crimes, while Ohio has one for peo­ple con­victed of drunken driv­ing at least five times. “In this day and age, you can’t have enough in­for­ma­tion about peo­ple com­ing into your lives,” said New York state Sen. Michael Noz­zo­lio, who was un­suc­cess­ful in sev­eral at­tempts to es­tab­lish a vi­o­lent of­fender reg­istry. The in­creas­ing num­ber of of­fender reg­istries can be traced to a ba­sic need to con­trol threats around us, said Molly Wil­son, a law pro­fes­sor at St. Louis Univer­sity.

“The data doesn’t bear it out that the reg­istries make peo­ple safer, but it does make them happier,” she said.

In a 2013 pa­per for the Louisiana Law Re­view, Wil­son cited stud­ies show­ing that reg­istries seemed to have lit­tle ef­fect on re­ported rapes or whether a con­victed per­son com­mits crimes again.

She cited a 1995 study that found no sig­nif­i­cant dif­fer­ence be­tween the re­cidi­vism rates for sex of­fend­ers who were re­quired to reg­is­ter and those who weren’t. An­other study looked at 10 states and found regis­tra­tion and no­ti­fi­ca­tion laws seemed to have no pre­dictable ef­fect on the in­ci­dence of rape: six of the states saw no change in rape rates, three showed a de­crease in rapes and one saw an in­crease.

Even Brum­ley, the Illi­nois ex-con­vict, said he can un­der­stand why states would want a reg­istry for se­rial child mo­lesters or other re­peat vi­o­lent of­fend­ers.

“I’d want to know who’s around my kids,” said Brum­ley, who lives in Naperville, a Chicago sub­urb.

Pros­e­cu­tors plan to pur­sue the death penalty against James Wor­ley, the ex-con who has pleaded not guilty to killing Joughin, 20, and is sched­uled to go on trial next year. He and his at­tor­neys have de­clined to com­ment.

Va­c­u­lik doubts a reg­istry would have saved her daugh­ter, but thinks it might pro­tect some­one else and re­move some of the fear her neigh­bors now have in their ev­ery­day lives.

“That’s not how I want to live,” she said. “But I do want to be in­formed.” As­so­ci­ated Press re­searcher Jen­nifer Far­rar in New York con­trib­uted to this re­port.


In this July 22 photo, law en­force­ment of­fi­cers search for miss­ing Univer­sity of Toledo stu­dent Sierah Joughin on James Wor­ley’s prop­erty in Delta, Ohio. The fam­ily of Joughin, who in­ves­ti­ga­tors say was ab­ducted and killed by a neigh­bor with a hid­den past, wants Ohio law­mak­ers to fol­low the lead of at least seven other states that track all sorts of vi­o­lent of­fend­ers.

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