Report 2003-105 Summary - August 2003

California Law Enforcement and Correctional Agencies:

With Increased Efforts, They Could Improve the Accuracy and Completeness of Public Information on Sex Offenders

HIGHLIGHTS

Our review of the Department of Justice's (Justice) database of serious and high-risk sex offenders, known as the Megan's Law database, disclosed the following:

  • The Megan's Law database contains thousands of errors, inconsistencies, and out-of-date information.
  • Because it excludes records for some serious and high-risk sex offenders and erroneously lists others as incarcerated, the Megan's Law database does not inform the public about these offenders.
  • Conversely, because it includes hundreds of duplicate records and erroneously indicates that 1,142 incarcerated sex offenders are free, it may unnecessarily alarm the public.
  • The address information for roughly 23,000 records in the Megan's Law database has not been updated for at least a year largely because sex offenders have not registered.
  • Although Justice maintains that its primary responsibility is to compile the sex offender data it receives from law enforcement agencies and confinement facilities, it has taken steps to improve the accuracy of the information in the Megan's Law database.

RESULTS IN BRIEF

In 1947, California became the first state in the nation to require convicted sex offenders to register with local law enforcement agencies, and the State's requirements have evolved in the last decade to require sex offenders to register more often and provide more detailed information. This evolution has been largely in response to the 1996 federal and state Megan's Laws, which notably require California law enforcement agencies to offer public access to information on every sex offender classified as serious or high risk, including the offender's name, physical description, and the county and zip code where the offender last registered. In its Violent Crime Information Network (VCIN), the Department of Justice (Justice) maintains a database of this public information, along with other data not available to the public, about violent offenders, including sex offenders. Justice allows law enforcement agencies access to its intranet to gather and disseminate the public data on sex offenders classified as serious or high risk. This public information, commonly known as the Megan's Law database, contained 80,746 records of convicted sex offenders registered in California as of July 2003 and is accessible to the public at local law enforcement agencies. Using the Megan's Law database, parents might check to see the names and photographs of convicted sex offenders registered in their zip code areas.

Unfortunately, the Megan's Law database contains thousands of errors and inconsistencies as well as out-of-date information; therefore, the public is not accurately informed about many known sex offenders. For example, at least 482 records incorrectly indicate that the offenders are incarcerated. Also, 51 juvenile sex offenders who were committed to the Department of Youth Authority (Youth Authority) have never been included in the Megan's Law database, even though they were convicted in adult court of registrable sex offenses subject to public disclosure. Other serious and high-risk sex offenders are not in the public database because Justice needs to do further research to learn the details of their crimes and accurately reflect this in the database. For a sample of these records, Justice took an average of 13 months to correct the offense codes. As a result of these inaccuracies in the Megan's Law database, California residents may check the database yet have no idea they are living down the block from a dangerous sex offender, a possible scenario that violates the purpose and intention of Megan's Law.

On the other hand, some information in the Megan's Law database could unnecessarily alarm the public, leading people to believe their community is home to more sex offenders than are actually there. For example, the database contains more than 400 duplicate records. We found that personnel at local law enforcement agencies who do not correctly update information in the VCIN create most of these duplicate records. One city's police department created 89 duplicate records due to a misunderstanding of how to update existing records. Although Justice's procedures for entering information about registered sex offenders into the database emphasize the need to search for an existing record before creating a new one, personnel who update the records do not always comply with the requirement. Also, the Megan's Law database shows many sex offenders as living in public communities when they are actually incarcerated; we found 1,142 records that indicate the offenders were released although the Department of Corrections (Corrections) reports them as incarcerated. Justice has started using a software program that compares the VCIN with Corrections' database to update the status of incarcerated sex offenders.

We noted an even larger problem in the Megan's Law database; roughly 23,000 records contain address information that has not been updated for at least a year largely because the sex offenders have not registered, and 14,000 of these had not been updated for at least five years. To compound the problem, the Megan's Law database does not display the dates when sex offenders register, making it impossible for the public to realize that a record's information is out of date. Some outdated registration information results from sex offenders not registering annually or when they move, as required. Failing to register as a sex offender is a convictable crime, but the efforts of local law enforcement agencies to locate individuals who have committed this crime are often unsuccessful because many of those who violate registration laws continually relocate. Thus, a sex offender who moves from place to place and does not register may never be charged with the violation unless he or she is later arrested for another crime. Although the validity of address information in the Megan's Law database becomes questionable when a sex offender does not periodically register, the public is not made aware of this problem. Not only does the public information not include the date the offender last registered, but also it does not include disclaimers stating that Justice does not verify the information, thereby warning people that they should not solely rely on the data to determine the risk an offender may pose to the public. These and other disclaimers would be valuable to people using the Megan's Law database, and Justice is presently finalizing new disclaimers.

The public uses the Megan's Law database to find out how many sex offenders live in a specific zip code or whether an individual living in a particular zip code has a record of sex offenses. Law enforcement agencies use the sex offender registration data in the VCIN to determine whether a person suspected of a crime is required to register as a sex offender and if so, whether he or she is in compliance with registration requirements. Although the accuracy of the information in both databases depends primarily on sex offenders providing their correct addresses and other information when they register and notifying law enforcement agencies when they relocate, the public relies heavily on Justice and other law enforcement agencies and correctional and other custodial agencies to provide the best information possible. Because the public and local law enforcement agencies use the sex offender information they see in the Megan's Law database and the VCIN, Justice should continually review the sex offender data it compiles for accuracy and to identify high-risk offenders. However, Justice maintains that its primary responsibility is to compile the data received from law enforcement agencies and confinement facilities. Justice also contends that it has not reviewed the data for accuracy because it has lacked the necessary resources.

Furthermore, Justice lacks an adequate process for identifying sex offenders who were convicted in juvenile court to ensure that their records are not made available to the public. Under state law, only juveniles who received convictions for their sex offenses from an adult court are subject to public disclosure. In reviewing the Megan's Law database, we found records for 42 juvenile sex offenders tried in juvenile court that should not have been included. According to Justice, staff who enter registration information in the VCIN are not sufficiently trained to distinguish between juvenile and superior court convictions and do not always receive court disposition documents to help determine whether the offender was convicted in juvenile court. However, by making these juvenile records public, Justice has denied these individuals their rightful protection and confidentiality under the law.

Since the State enacted Megan's Law in 1996, Justice has not reviewed the sex offender data it compiles to identify all duplicate records or inconsistent information. According to Justice, it has not had sufficient resources to resolve the discrepancies that it knows exist. Justice further states that between 1997 and 2001, its staff who enter sex offender registration information into the VCIN worked overtime to keep up with the volume of paper registration forms submitted by local agencies that initially receive new or updated registrations from sex offenders. The volume of paper registration forms submitted to Justice dropped in 1999 when legislation was passed requiring local law enforcement agencies to electronically submit registration information directly into the VCIN. However, although the volume of registration forms dropped again in 2002, Justice claims that it has not had the resources necessary to fully research and resolve all the problems with the sex offender data. Moreover, according to Justice, because it is only a repository, not the originating source, of much of the Megan's Law information, it is beyond the purview of Justice to ensure that information provided by courts and registering agencies is accurate. Rather, Justice says, it is the duty of those agencies to ensure that the information they provide to Justice for the database is accurate. According to Justice, it has focused its efforts on entering registration information and responding to issues when they come to its attention, but until recently has placed little attention on analyzing the information as a whole, as we did to obtain the results we discuss in Chapter 1. However, because Justice makes this information available for the public to use to safeguard itself from dangerous sex offenders, we believe Justice should do more to update the database.

Since January 2003, Justice has taken steps to identify inaccurate information and has made corrections to hundreds of records. By comparing the VCIN sex offender records to other agencies' information, Justice found 1,360 records that can be deleted from the VCIN because the sex offenders are deceased and another 2,833 records that can be updated to reflect that the offenders are living outside the State. Justice also formed an assessment unit of eight full-time staff who are reviewing the criminal history files of sex offenders in its database and determining whether they are properly classified as to the risk they pose to the public. Justice reports that, as of July 2003, the assessment unit has raised the classification for 351 offenders from other to serious, making these records available to the public.

In addition, Justice asked Corrections in February 2003 to provide information about 2,575 sex offenders whose records in the VCIN indicated that their release from prison was imminent. As of May 2003, Corrections reported that it had discharged 921 and paroled 866 of the 2,575 offenders. It is likely that the records for many of these offenders should appear in the Megan's Law database. Of the 866 parolees, Corrections found that 146 are at large—their locations unknown; many others were turned over to the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) and probably deported.1 According to Corrections, although it reports when sex offenders are released, it does not inform Justice of those who were turned over to the INS upon release. According to Justice, it is currently working with the INS to obtain information on deported sex offenders.

RECOMMENDATIONS

To ensure that the records of juvenile sex offenders are properly classified and disclosed, Justice should periodically reconcile its sex offender registry with Youth Authority information, provide training to its staff regarding the proper classification of records, and obtain all necessary documentation to properly classify juvenile records.

To correctly identify and disclose information about all sex offenders, Justice should do the following:

  • Regularly compare its records showing the incarcerated status with information provided by Corrections to determine which of these sex offenders are no longer in confinement. Justice can then update these records appropriately.
  • Continue researching records to learn the details of the sex offenders' crimes and accurately reflect this in the database.

To eliminate duplicate records from the VCIN, Justice should periodically analyze its data to identify obvious and likely duplicates and eliminate them.

To ensure that its staff and personnel at local law enforcement agencies update sex offender information accurately, Justice should design and implement appropriate training programs.

To improve the value of the sex offender information available to the public but possibly outdated, Justice should modify the Megan's Law database to include the date the registration information was last provided.

To present the Megan's Law information to the public in a manner that represents its true nature and purpose, Justice should finalize its disclaimer information for the public to read when viewing the Megan's Law database.

To ensure that it identifies and updates records of sex offenders confined in prisons, Justice should continue to work with Corrections to improve this process and produce exception reports to resolve those records in question.

To ensure that it updates records of sex offenders who are deported, Justice should continue to work with the INS to obtain this information and update sex offenders' records.

AGENCY COMMENTS

Justice believes our audit has been a healthy experience but our report does not give adequate weight to the complexity of the environment within which law enforcement is forced to operate; specifically, competing program demands, budget cutbacks and associated personnel reductions, and the inadequacies of its computer system. Justice also believes that our report leaves the reader with the mistaken impression that Justice has made no effort in addressing some of the issues our report raises and where we do discuss Justice's efforts, it is only in a passing reference, causing our report to distort and understate the effectiveness of the sex offender registration program. For example, Justice believes that our decision not to comment on its future projects leaves the reader with an incomplete assessment of the sex offender registration program, relevant issues, and its efforts to solve problems. Additionally, Justice believes that our report unfairly blames it for not ensuring the accuracy of the information provided to it by other agencies and places the burden of inherent inefficiencies and compliance failures totally on it, ignoring the root cause of the problems, such as the other agencies and the sex offenders themselves. We respond to Justice's comments on pages 75 to 79.

The Youth and Adult Correctional Agency generally agrees with the portions of our report concerning Youth Authority and Corrections.


1 On March 1, 2003, the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service became part of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and changed its name to the Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services.

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