A child advocacy group found that states across the country have lost track of tens of thousands of rapists, child molesters and other sex offenders who are supposed to be registered in Megan’s Law databases.
Prompted by an Associated Press investigation that revealed California had lost track of at least 33,000 sex offenders, Parents for Megan’s Law contacted all 50 states by telephone to ask about the accuracy of their registries.
It found that states on average were unable to account for 24 percent of sex offenders supposed to be in the databases.
If any offenders enter Arizona, the state has no way of knowing they are here unless they commit another crime, said Val Biebrich, supervisor of Arizona Department of Public Safety's Sex Offenders Compliance Section.
"If they move here and do not register as a sex offender, Arizona will never know," Biebrich said.
Federal law requires the addresses of convicted sex offenders to be verified at least once a year. Failure to report as a sex offender is a Class 4 felony that can result in a 2 1/2-year prison sentence.
However, Arizona has bucked the national trend. Of the more than 13,000 registered sex offenders in the state, only 6 percent are unaccounted for, said Biebrich, who leads an office of six people that manages the whereabouts of the state's sex offenders. Most of the sex offenders who drop out of the system in Arizona are homeless, which makes them very hard to track down, Biebrich said. The survey conducted by the child advocacy group found that up-to-date addresses for more than 77,000 sex offenders are missing from the databases of 32 states. And in the other 18 states and the District of Columbia, which are responsible for 133,705 offenders, thousands of the ex-convicts may have disappeared.
‘‘They’re implementing Megan’s Law, then turning their backs on it,’’ said Laura Ahearn, executive director of the nonprofit agency in New York. ‘‘They need the technology and the staff to track down their sex offenders.’’
All states responded to the group’s survey, but only 32 were able to provide failure rates. Many of these said they have never audited their sex offender registries and provided only rough estimates of their accuracy.
The survey, which the group plans to release today, relied on the word of officials in each state, unlike the AP’s analysis in California, which was based on a CD-ROM of data taken directly from the registry.
The survey said Oklahoma and Tennessee had the highest rates of noncompliance, each at 50 percent. A Tennessee official disputed this, and Oklahoma’s Corrections Department spokesman, Brian Johnson, said the figure was just his best guess.
‘‘I don’t have any specific actual information in terms of the level of noncompliance,’’ he said. ‘‘We’ve not done a study of that that I’m aware of.’’
The databases are supposed to help the public and police monitor sex offenders by keeping track of their home and work addresses and other personal details. Adults can search the database at sheriffs’ offices or police departments, assuming the information is kept up to date as required.
All states have versions of the law named for 7-year-old Megan Kanka, a New Jersey girl who was raped and killed by a child molester who had moved in across the street.
But many states admit they don’t know whether the databases are accurate — and they have little staff to do the work.
In Oklahoma, Johnson’s department mails address verification forms each year to 5,415 sex offenders, who are required to update and return them. But no one monitors how many of the forms come back and how many don’t.
Johnson said he spends about a third of his time on sex offender registration. One full-time worker has the rest of the responsibility.
The advocacy group said Tennessee’s Bureau of Investigation told it half of the state’s 6,300 sex offenders were out of compliance with the law. But a spokeswoman for the agency, Jeanne Broadwell, said 37 percent of 5,812 offenders were missing. She couldn’t explain the discrepancy.
The agency receives most of its updates from local law enforcement by mail, Broadwell said, and it usually takes about six more weeks to put it into the Megan’s Law database.
Among the states with the best compliance rates is Florida, where state officials told the group only 4.7 percent of 27,689 offenders have failed to update their addresses.
Florida’s Department of Law Enforcement sends letters out each year and has a full-time staff of 11 to keep close track of those that come back. Offenders who don’t respond often get a visit from police, spokeswoman Mary Coffee said.
‘‘We send a notification to law enforcement that says, ‘Here’s the guys who didn’t report.’ Certain agencies have entire units who follow up on these folks,’’ Coffee said.
Several state agencies, including the department that issues driver’s licenses and state identification cards, which sex offenders in Florida are required to keep, have direct electronic access to the database.
‘‘We have legislative and technology help that helps us do our best keeping track of these folks,’’ Coffee said.
Ahearn said she was surprised that some populous states reported very different results. For example, Massachusetts told the group it had lost track of 44 percent of its 18,000 offenders, while Illinois said it lost just 14 percent of its 17,087.
After the AP’s story about the California database, state and federal lawmakers, advocates for crime victims and police demanded efforts to improve Megan’s Law databases. But with California and other states facing big budget deficits, more money will be hard to find.
Johnson also said he doubts the databases will ever provide more than a false sense of security.
‘‘There’s three reasons to have a sex offender registry,’’ he said. ‘‘One is public protection, the second is it supports law enforcement investigations and it might prevent future acts of criminal behavior. I’m not aware of any research that says any of those things are accomplished.’’