Sex offender tracking shows success; Gregoire wants to keep program

By Michelle Dupler, Herald staff writerMarch 10, 2009 

OLYMPIA -- There are a lot of things on the chopping block in Gov. Chris Gregoire's proposed biennial budget, but one thing she said she wants to keep is a program to track sex offender registrations.

Gregoire and law enforcement officials said Monday that two programs -- one that provides money for law enforcement agencies to verify sex offenders' addresses and one to improve the state's online offender database -- are showing results and keeping communities safer.

The $5 million for law enforcement agencies was divvied up among the state's 38 counties and allowed officers to visit offenders' addresses to make sure they were where they claimed to be.

In the Mid-Columbia, some agencies hired more staff to collect and process information about offenders, or to pay overtime so officers could knock on doors.

Franklin County Sheriff Richard Lathim said Monday that his department always has been diligent about verifying the whereabouts of the 225 registered sex offenders in the county, but the $94,107 from the state allowed him, in part, to team up with Pasco to hire a part-time person to do the paperwork to track offenders and keep the database current.

It also paid for training so that officers will be following the same procedures as the rest of the state, because part of the program's goal is consistency in enforcement.

Benton County, which has 468 registered sex offenders, received $131,252; Adams County with 45 registered offenders got $45,000; Columbia County with 21 registered offenders got $21,000; Grant County with 275 registered offenders got $101,750; and Walla Walla County with 159 registered offenders got $84,018.

Chelan County Sheriff Dan Harum said at the news conference Monday that before the state funding came through, his department had to rely on sending letters or postcards to Level I sex offenders -- those deemed the least likely to reoffend -- to check their whereabouts.

"Today we make face-to-face contact," he said.

And that has resulted in 238 arrests for failing to register statewide since July 1, when law officers have visited 13,290 of the state's 18,136 registered sex offenders, Harum said. The remaining offenders will be visited by June 30 -- the end of the program's first year.

Another 357 people were arrested on unrelated warrants or new sex offenses, according to the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs, or WASPC.

A total of 569 offenders of the more than 13,000 visited were not at their reported addresses.

The program requires officers to visit Level III offenders -- those convicted of the worst crimes or deemed the highest risk to communities -- every three months.

Level II offenders -- those considered a moderate risk to communities -- must be visited every six months. Level I offenders are visited once a year.

Thurston County Sheriff Dan Kimball said the quarterly visits of Level III offenders has resulted in more offenders keeping up with their registrations.

But registration is just one tool officers have to address sex crimes, and simply knowing where someone is may not prevent them from committing another crime.

"In the end, evil people will continue to do evil things," said Don Pierce, WASPC executive director. "But what we need to do is keep taking steps to protect our communities. There's no one thing we can do that's a panacea."

That's why Gregoire also put $321,000 into improving the state's online sex offender database to make it easier for citizens to find information about offenders in their neighborhoods.

The new site, called Offender Watch, allows people to sign up for e-mail alerts when a sex offender moves in nearby, and links all of the county sheriffs' registries so they can track when an offender moves from one county to another.

"Together, these two programs have put tools into the chest of our law enforcement community to strengthen the way we manage sex offenders," Gregoire said.

And despite a mounting deficit now projected at about $8.5 billion, Gregoire said she's keeping that commitment to inform communities and track offenders.

"It is absolutely incumbent on the state to provide funding so promises to the citizens are kept," she said.

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