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MA: Sex offender registration slows after legal changes.

November 13, 2000

Not surprisingly, Agawam resident Donna M. Moore still has the two-year-old list of sex offenders in her neighborhood.

Moore obtained the information from Agawam's police department. But don't bother trying to get a similar list. Right now, such information is not available to the public in Agawam or anywhere else in the state.

"So many people are concerned," Moore said. "They don't understand why they can't get that information."
That situation is likely to change in December or January, according to state officials responsible for registering sex offenders. But even if the names of such people can be released, it is likely to be several months perhaps years before the name of every sex offender is available to the public.

"Unfortunately, it's not a fast process," Robert W. Baker, director of operations for the state's Sex Offender Registry Board, said.

The board is responsible for registering sex offenders. Baker was in Agawam last week for a public meeting about the registry board held at the Agawam police station. The meeting was the first public meeting held by the board, which was created in September.

"I thought it was very useful," said Agawam resident Jeffrey D. Dawson, who attended the meeting.

The state Legislature passed a law in August 1996 requiring sex offenders to register with police and for police to make the information available to the public.

State officials have estimated that 17,000 people would be required to register. An estimated 2,700 sex offenders live in Hampden, Hampshire, Franklin and Berkshire counties, Baker said.

Initially, a volunteer registry board was responsible for registering and classifying sex offenders. Sex offenders are classified into three categories, ranging from low risk, Level 1, offenders to high risk, Level 3, offenders. Information about Level 1 offenders is not available to the public. As for levels 2 and 3 offenders, residents can obtain the names of such people who live "anywhere that you're likely to go or where your children are likely to go," said Stephen L. DiNatale, the board's director of training and community services.

An estimated 7,000 sex offenders were registered by the volunteer registry board from 1996 to 1998. Of those individuals, 1,389 were classified as Level 1, 2 or 3 offenders, Baker said. The others had not yet been classified.

But in August 1999, the state's Supreme Judicial Court ruled that people identified as sex offenders were entitled to a hearing before being required to register. The same court ruling also nullified all the classifications already made by the volunteer sex-offender registry. As a result, all sex offenders must be reregistered and reclassified by the new Sex Offender Registry Board.

In addition, the court ruling prompted the state Legislature to enact a law in September 1999 requiring sex offenders to register by mailing in a postcard rather than registering in person at the police station. The American Civil Liberties Union immediately criticized the new law. And last December, Suffolk Superior Court Judge John Xifaras ruled the new law was unconstitutional, saying, "registration prior to a showing of necessity...violates a protected liberty interest."

Meanwhile, police departments have been unable to release the names of registered sex offenders since August 1999. And until a Supreme Judicial Court rules on Xifaras' decision, the registry board cannot register any sex offenders.

The court is likely to reach a decision in December or January, Baker said. But regardless of the outcome, the entire registration and classification process will be significantly slower since sex offenders will be able to request a hearing challenging their registration or classification.

"The potential is there for a lot of hearings," Baker said.

Baker estimates the new process will limit the registry board to classifying about 70 sex offenders per week. Based on this pace, it would take the registry board until the summer of 2005 to classify all 17,000 sex offenders.

The process is not likely to take that long since not every sex offender will request a hearing, Baker said. Hampden County District Attorney William M. Bennett agreed. "I think it will probably not be as difficult as some think now."

But Bennett added that he believed it was important to have the registry up and running in the state. "It gives us a greater ability to monitor and prevent crime," he said. "These individuals are dangerous and it's a public safety issue."

Springfield Police Sgt. Donald P.W. Sicard Jr., who supervises sex-offender registry for the department, agreed, saying it was "frustrating" not being able to disseminate such information right now. "As an individual, I would always be concerned about the lack of information," he said.

Moore echoed Sicard's comments. Parents should be able to obtain such information, she said, "so they can take precautions and inform their children."

Source: Union-News, Sunday Republican., by Ken Ross.