Has Westchester's Sex Offender Registry Done Anything to Make Our Children Safer?
We might feel at ease knowing that, if a sex offender moved into our neighborhood, we’d have to be informed. But does that really protect our children?
In Tom Perrotta’s novel, Little Children, a convicted sex offender moves back to the town where he grew up to live with his mother. Isolated and ostracized, he nonetheless ventures to the town swimming pool one steamy summer afternoon to cool off. When the crowd begins to realize he’s snorkeling in the pool, it quickly empties as screaming mothers grab their toddlers and shout for their older children to make a beeline for the walkway.
On a much smaller scale, residents of a Northern Westchester town had a similar reaction when Steve Milligan, now 45, a Level 2 sex offender who served five years in a Florida prison for the statutory rape of a 15-year-old girl, moved to the area. Although there were never any reported incidents—he has lived in the area off and on for years—his mere presence never did sit well with residents. “They had concerns,” says Bedford Police Department Operations Lieutenant Jeffrey R. Dickan.
Milligan, who was unable to find work, no longer resides in the Town of Bedford. His girlfriend, who remains, did not wish to speak on the record for fear of more publicity and suffering for herself and her family.
Had Milligan served time in prison for any other crime—armed robbery, drug dealing—his neighbors might have been none the wiser. But because of laws passed in reaction to a couple of highly publicized, horrific crimes in which a stranger abducted, assaulted, and murdered a child, people like Milligan must register with local police wherever they live, and, depending on their jurisdiction, police are sometimes required to notify the community of their presence. And, in this case, the community responded with alarm. There was talk of taking Milligan’s picture and posting an alert on every tree and telephone pole.
The town also was on edge about David Ohnmacht, 32, a former ice-cream truck driver. The Level 3 sex offender lived in Bedford at the time of his arrest, and people were concerned he might be returning.
Why the panic?
“It’s fear of the unknown,” says Dickan. He explains that, to remove some of the fear from having Milligan and Ohnmacht living in the area, Bedford held a town hall meeting. Some of Ohnmacht’s family members attended just to hear what was being said. (According to officials, it’s not unusual for the offender himself to show up.) It was at that meeting that Dickan learned of the plan to wallpaper the town with photos of Milligan’s face. As Dickan told everyone then, “You can’t harass, annoy, or alarm a sex offender any more than he can harass, annoy, or alarm you. People convicted of a crime serve their time and, once released, you can’t violate their rights.”
This would include their right to get a haircut, go to the mall or to a movie, or move in three doors down from you—as long as doing so doesn’t break any conditions set by their parole, probation officer, or any municipal residency restrictions. Some of the conditions might include the inability to drive or take a job before the local police approve the location. Local police are supposed to be aware of the restrictions that do exist, increase patrols, and arrest offenders who violate them.
Given that one can easily look up the personal information of almost all Level 2 or 3 sex offenders online (just go to criminaljustice.ny.gov/nsor, then search by zip code to see who lives in your area), and that local police are already keeping a watchful eye, would posting a picture with Milligan’s name, address, and other identifying details really be necessary? Would it further protect children?
Proponents of registries say that lawmakers created them with the best of intentions—to protect potential victims. After a series of high-profile sex crimes, including the now-famous 1994 murder in New Jersey of 7-year-old Megan Kanka, who was killed by a neighbor who’d had a history of sex offenses, many state legislatures passed “Megan’s Laws,” which established or strengthened registries for the police, but also created systems whereby the public was notified through websites, fliers, or door-to-door alerts that an offender had moved into the community. That latter tool has rankled many.
There are 34,095 registered sex offenders in New York State, 535 of whom live in Westchester, as of presstime. Nationwide, there are approximately 700,000 registered sex offenders. When released from prison, each is assigned a risk level, from 1 (low risk of repeat offense) to 3 (high risk and a threat to public safety), by the sentencing court. Yet the accuracy of the assessments is, some experts say, questionable, given the recidivism rates. According to the latest statistics available from the Department of Justice, 5.3 percent of sex offenders (men who had committed rape or sexual assault) were rearrested for another sex crime within three years. In fact, released prisoners with the highest rearrest rates over a comparable time period were robbers (70.2 percent), burglars (74 percent), larcenists (74.6 percent), motor vehicle thieves (78.8 percent), those in prison for possessing or selling stolen property (77.4 percent), and those in prison for possessing, using, or selling illegal weapons (70.2 percent). Yet these felons are not required to register their address, phone number, car make, license plate number, and photo into a searchable database, nor do police announce that a burglar has just moved into your neighborhood.
According to the Maryland-based Center for Sex Offender Management, community notification about sex offenders was designed “as a means of…providing law enforcement with an additional investigative tool, and increasing public protection.”
“The registry has an important function in public safety,” says Risa Sugarman, director of the Office of Sex Offender Management at the New York State Division of Criminal Justice Services, who oversees the State’s registry. “We don’t want people to be afraid.
We want people to be empowered. When you’re dealing with a burglar, you can have a burglar alarm. But you can’t create a sex offender alarm,” she adds.
Sugarman also says that the State has done its part to avoid hysteria—keeping non-violent, low-re-offense-risk people off of registries; forgiving Romeo and Juliet scenarios of youthful romances in which one partner is just under the age of consent, unless the “lovers” were more than five years apart; and not requiring persons younger than 16 who have committed a crime to register (except in certain cases).
And there is evidence that registries have helped law enforcement track offenders. In a paper published last year in the Journal of Law & Economics, economists J.J. Prescott and Jonah Rockoff argue “that each additional sex offender registered per 10,000 people reduces reported annual sex offenses per 10,000 by 0.092 crimes.” According to their calculations, this is a 10-percent reduction. They argue, though, that the cause isn’t public awareness, but the police knowing where to find potential perpetrators.
In fact, not only did their analysis find that the public’s knowledge plays almost no role in a crime decrease, it suggested that the stress of being publicly labeled a sex offender increases the risk of new crimes by past offenders. (Notification did deter some first-time offenders, but not enough to balance out the increased risk.) “I don’t think there’s any evidence out there that knowing who the offenders are around you makes you any safer,” says Prescott, who is also a professor of law at the University of Michigan Law School. “And there’s some evidence that it just freaks everybody out.”
Knowing where the past offenders are may help police, but they don’t also need a publicly searchable registry, say some experts. “Police officers have that information anyway in the National Crime Information Center,” says Elizabeth Megale, assistant professor of law at Barry University Dwayne O. Andreas School of Law in Orlando, Florida. The NCIC is a nationwide electronic clearinghouse of crime data accessible to every criminal justice agency 24/7.
The point isn’t that we should go soft on sex offenders who pose a real risk. It’s that thousands of men—including teenagers who have had sex with an underage high-school sweetheart—whose crime had nothing to do with the abduction or murder of a child are unable to make a fresh start after their release from prison. (About those high school sweethearts: Despite the State’s decision not to include many young people on registries, those as young as 14 can end up there if prosecuted for certain crimes and denied “youthful offender status” in criminal court.) Those convicted of minor crimes that nonetheless had a sexual component often can’t get jobs, housing is an enormous problem due to residency restrictions keeping them away from parks and schools, and they’re often cut off from their families, services, and resources.
Take, for instance, the issue of housing. Some men are “door violators”—they would violate their parole the minute they walk out the door—and remain imprisoned on their release date because they have no acceptable place to live. In Miami-Dade County, Florida, a group of sex offenders live under a bridge because it’s the only place they could find that doesn’t violate the county’s residence restrictions.
What these men experience, says Megale, is “social death.” And, because they are so marginalized, 43 percent commit further crimes. Even then, those crimes are usually not sex-related. “For most of them, it’s substance-abuse, DUI, or petty theft like shoplifting,” says Megale.
In addition, “as more laws are passed, we’re catching more people in the net,” says Keri Burchfield, PhD, associate professor of sociology at Northern Illinois University. “Resources are spread so thin that it becomes difficult to monitor and supervise to the point where we can’t tell who the really dangerous ones are.”
Many experts who study the issue say that public notification—the equivalent of a “scarlet letter”—does little or nothing to protect the public, but only serves to punish offenders further. “The UK looked at this two or three times and decided against it, based on literature that suggests it backfires,” reports Richard Krueger, associate clinical professor of psychiatry at Columbia University. “But the US rushed into it.”
Not only is the problem not fixed but parents are lulled by the registry into a false sense of security because they think they “know where the sex offenders are by looking them up online,” says Burchfield. Jill Levenson, PhD, a licensed clinical social worker and an associate professor of human services at Lynn University in Boca Raton, Florida, has been studying the effectiveness of registries over the past decade. According to her research, the database solution not only fails to provide a solution but also reinforces the “stranger danger” myth, that someone unknown to a child will jump out of the bushes and abduct him or her. Research shows, however, that most victims know their attackers, whether they are relatives, family friends, acquaintances, or those who work with children, e.g., coaches, teachers, or others in positions of authority. Experts say that, instead of worrying about the known sex offender down the block, parents should worry more about the adult who earns a child’s trust and sets the child up for abuse by giving him or her special attention, gifts, or favors.
When this sort of situation does arise, it’s often swept under the carpet. According to Fredric I. Green, chief of the Sex Crimes Bureau of the Westchester County District Attorney’s Office, sex offenses are the most underreported crimes nationwide. “Many issues lead sexual-assault victims not to report—fear of the system, fear of the attacker, blame, guilt, embarrassment.” These types of issues don’t come up with other types of crimes, he notes. “People don’t sit at home and think they’ll be embarrassed if they report they were robbed.”
One could argue that the families of sex offenders suffer, too, although obviously not in the same way as victims and their families. Just as sex offenders are ostracized, so, most likely, are their loved ones—people who have committed no crimes.
One young man attempting to make his way is 26-year-old Matthew*, who lives with his girlfriend, Shana Rowan, also 26. Originally from South Salem, the couple now live in central New York. Matthew is a mechanic; Rowan works as a full-time registry-reform advocate. Matthew’s offense, Rowan says, relates to sexual activity his abusive mother allowed between him and his younger half-sister. When Matthew turned 16, his mother turned him into the police. He served four years in prison and two on parole. Other than this incident, Rowan says, he has no history of arrests.
According to Rowan, Matthew’s boss and coworkers know of his past and have no issues with it, and, at first, the couple had no problems with their next-door neighbors. “They have kids,” she says. “We were never friends with them, but were friendly and said hello. The hubby would chat over the fence with Matthew once in a while.” Around Halloween of last year, however, things changed.
“There was a big push for parents to check the online sex-offender registry to know which houses to avoid,” says Rowan. “It was about that time that our neighbors stopped looking at or speaking to us. Then they started calling property codes on us—one for having an unregistered car in our yard that Matthew was working on, one for bags of mulch at the back of the yard that the previous owners had left, and one for a plastic bag that blew into our yard.” Some might call it harassment—harassment that hurt Rowan, who has never been convicted of a crime, as much as Matthew, who already served his time.
A separate incident last summer involved Rowan’s car. “I have an old Nova,” she says. “And because Matthew sometimes drives it, it is included on his registry entry.” She says that Matthew had driven the car for a week, and, a short time later, they came home to find the driver’s door smashed in. They reported the incident to the police, but nothing ever came of it.
Rowan says the required notification creates the most problems. “For myself, it’s the constant worry that some vigilante will decide to have a problem with Matthew. Anything anyone decides to do would affect me directly.”
Kathy* wept on the phone as she recounted the horror story being lived out by her now 21-year-old son, Jack*, who today sits in a county jail in Pennsylvania. As Kathy tells it, two of Jack’s friends stopped by their house nearly a year ago with Shelly*, who said she was 19 and posted the same on her Facebook page. Jack and Shelly ended up having sex that night. A short time later, Shelly told her mother that she was pregnant—she was not—and thought the father was Jack. Shelly’s mother promptly went to the police—Shelly was actually 14 years old. (The age of consent in Pennsylvania is 16.) While Shelly admitted in her statement to the police that the sex was consensual, Jack was charged with statutory rape and corruption of a minor.
“If Jack had known she was fourteen, he never would have touched her,” says Kathy. “My son’s future is destroyed. He won’t be able to join the military, he’ll have a hard time finding any job. I have a twelve-year-old daughter at home, and she won’t be able to have friends over since he’s to have no contact with minors.”
Kathy, Rowan, and other families across the country are starting to fight back, joining groups such as NYRSOL (New York—Reform Sex Offender Laws), which call for a review of existing legislation and question the need for what they say is treating all sex offenders in the registry the same, “regardless of past histories, possible future re-offending, and the true nature of the offense.” What they are asking for is protection of their civil rights so that once offenders have served their time, they and their families can live in peace, without the threat of job loss, eviction, harassment, or worse. Says Burchfield: “We need a better system of risk assessment to give low-risk offenders a chance to get off the registry and get their lives back.” For Rowan and thousands of others, that time won’t come a moment too soon.
Deborah A. Wilburn is an editor, writer, and digital content producer who lives in Sleepy Hollow.
Sex Offender Myths and Facts
Myth: Strangers commit most sexual offenses.
Fact: Most are committed by family members or acquaintances.
According to the US Department of Justice, someone known to the victim committed 86 percent of all sexual assault cases reported to law enforcement.
Myth: Child molesters spontaneously attack when they see a vulnerable potential victim.
Fact: Many child molesters spend years positioning themselves in places of authority in the community and trust with victims’ families, and they may spend a lot of time “grooming” a child.
Myth: The majority of sex crimes are reported.
Fact: Most sex crimes are not reported and, therefore, are not prosecuted.
According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics’ 2006 National Crime Victimization Survey, rapes and sexual assaults where the victims were age 12 and older were reported to the police 38 percent of the time. This varied by relationship to the offender, with 56 percent of cases involving strangers being reported but only 28 percent of cases by non-strangers being reported.
Compiled by the New York State Division of Criminal Justice Services