Mass. lawmakers concerned about ‘unaccounted for’ sex offenders

By Susan Spencer
As Published by the Worcester Telegram & Gazette

After a report from the state auditor found that nearly 1,800 sex offenders lacked a current address in the Sex Offender Registry Board’s database and more than 900 sex offenders had not been classified regarding their risk of re-offending, a legislative committee led by two Central Massachusetts lawmakers announced it plans to hold a hearing on SORB.

The oversight hearing by the Joint Committee on Public Safety and Homeland Security is scheduled for 10 a.m. Oct. 24 at the State House, Hearing Room B-1.

State Sen. Michael O. Moore, D-Millbury, who serves as Senate chairman, said in an interview he was concerned about “the amount of individuals that were out there and unaccounted for.”

The Sex Offender Registry Board was created under a 1996 law that required the state to create a registry of sex offenders and crimes against children.

The agency, within the state Executive Office of Public Safety and Security, registers offenders, classifies them as Level 1, 2, or 3 depending on their risk of re-offending once they’re back in the community, and disseminates information to the public and victims about the highest risk, Level 3, offenders and, for those classified after July 12, 2013, medium-risk Level 2 offenders.

Information about the identity and location of Level 2 and 3 sex offenders can’t be released to the public until the offender’s risk classification is complete.

While law enforcement, local agencies and educational organizations are among those that receive information directly from SORB on sex offenders, the public can access information at the SORB website:

During the audit conducted by state Auditor Suzanne M. Bump’s office, which took place between July 2015 through August 2016, the SORB database included information on 21,808 convicted sex offenders. Of these, 13,127 were in state, 5,260 had moved out of state, 2,874 were incarcerated and 547 had been deported.

Worcester had 575 registered sex offenders living in the city in late August 2017, according to the SORB database. Of those, 187, or one in three, were Level 3 offenders.

In other Worcester County cities and towns, there were a total of 1,140 registered sex offenders, with 274, or one in four, classified as Level 3.

The state audit found that among 13,112 sex offenders living in state during the time studied, nearly 2,000 were in violation of registration.

Another finding in the audit showed that information about sex offenders wasn’t being appropriately checked across state agencies, even though offenders received services from them.

Among the unaccounted-for sex offenders who had failed to register with SORB, in data tested from the Department of Transitional Assistance, 39 offenders were collecting public benefits in the state and 30 of those had different addresses from what was listed in SORB’s database.

“We have interagency agreements in place. They could be sharing information that’s not being utilized,” Mr. Moore said.

He hoped the hearing would help legislators find out what went wrong in the current process and whether there could be better ways to track sex offenders.

State Rep. Harold P. Naughton, D-Clinton, House chairman of the committee, said in a news release that shaping legislation and practices that promote public safety was his priority. “When it comes to dealing with SORB and the unaccounted for and unclassified offenders, no rock can be left unturned. It is our duty as elected officials to solve this threat to public safety.”

Officials from SORB said in the response included in the audit that SORB is not a law enforcement agency and isn’t equipped to track down offenders in violation of registration requirements.

“By way of analogy, under the current SORL (Sex Offender Registry Law), SORB is no more capable of ensuring full compliance with its statute by sex offenders than the court system is capable of ensuring full compliance with the obligation of criminal defendants to appear at court proceedings,” the agency wrote in response to the auditor’s findings.

SORB officials said that the agency would continue to establish policies to ensure it regularly obtains sex offender address information from other state agencies. It is working with the Department of Revenue and DTA to establish a secure method of data exchange, and will explore working with other agencies.

Officials also claim a change in the standard used to classify offenders, resulting from a 2015 state Supreme Judicial Court ruling, created a backlog as pending cases or cases under appeal had to be reviewed again under the new standard.

After sentencing, sex offenders must register with SORB and make sure that their registration stays up to date, filing annually and reporting changes in living address, school or work.

SORB notifies offenders of their recommended classification level, based on the degree of danger they pose to the public.

Before December 2015, when the SJC ruled on “John Doe 380316 v. Sex Offender Registry Board,” the classification was based on “the preponderance of the evidence.”

The court ruling required that a higher standard, “clear and convincing evidence,” be used for classification.

An offender has due process rights and can request a full evidentiary hearing challenging SORB’s recommended classification, according to the audit report.

“Offenders who are in violation are quite often incapable of being provided with the requisite notice to proceed with their classification,” SORB officials wrote. “Of the 936 unclassified offenders in violation, SORB has never been able to establish notice for 842 of them.”

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