Get serious about sex offender registration

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A scan of national headlines on any given day lays bare the reality that the fight to prevent the sexual assault of women and children is a continuous battle.

We read about the Minnesota sex offender who failed to register in North Dakota, where he is now charged with the November kidnapping of Dru Sjodin, a 22-year-old college student who is still missing. In Massachusetts, one of the state's most notorious sexual predators, who was charged last month with the rape and murder of a woman and her 12-year-old daughter, was not registered in the community where he was living part time and playing sports with children, according to news reports. Even though the offender was arrested in June for forging a painkiller prescription and provided that part-time address, police did not update the registry with the information, saying that it was unclear whether they had the authority to list him under a secondary address.

With each new story, it can feel as if we're losing the fight.

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But all 50 states have an important legal weapon in this fight. They all require convicted sex offenders to register with law enforcement agencies or face varying levels of penalties, including felony charges and prison time. The idea is that if the public knows who convicted offenders are and where they live, citizens have a better chance of protecting themselves and their children from rapists and pedophiles.

But sex-offender registration programs - in Illinois as well as most other states - fall short of their critical mission to arm citizens with information to help protect themselves and their children.

Too often, registration information is out of date, inaccurate, incomplete, or inaccessible. Many offenders supply phony addresses or photographs to avoid accurate registration.

For example, in Illinois, a 35-year-old sex offender registered for nine years using a high school picture, until our office required him to use a current photo. Many times, officials fail to verify information or to keep the registry up to date. Other offenders simply don't register but escape prosecution.

The harsh reality is that, too often, prosecuting this crime has not been a priority for law enforcement officials.

The results of these failures can be tragic, as evidenced in two Illinois cases. A single mother who regularly checked the Illinois registry became involved with an unregistered Illinois sex offender who repeatedly molested her 9-year-old son. An unregistered sex offender has been charged with the rape and murder of a 97-year-old grandmother in 2002. The offender lived next door to this woman, but her family didn't know it because he wasn't registered. He'd been arrested a few weeks earlier for failing to register as a sex offender, but the judge released him on his own recognizance after the offender promised to register.

We must - and can - do better.

We have to fix our sex-offender registration system. If registration is going to work, we must impose and enforce penalties for those who fail to comply. We must make sure that the offenders' names, addresses, and photos are accurate and timely, and that police make it a priority to maintain an accurate registry.

To accomplish this, as attorney general in Illinois, I've created the Illinois Sex Offender Registration Team - a group of law enforcement leaders and victim advocates - to conduct a critical analysis of the registry and to take strong action. One pilot project that debuted last week dispatched a special operations team to aggressively target unregistered sex offenders. The worst of the worst were targeted, and in the first day 15 offenders were located and charged with a Class Four Felony, which carries up to three years in prison.

We will continue to send this message to unregistered sex offenders: "Your time is up. Either register, or we will track you down and prosecute you."

If all attorneys general and law enforcement leaders approach this national crisis with equal vigor and consider it a priority, we could hold unregistered sex offenders accountable and make registration work.

But we can't fix the registry if officials continue to view their roles as repositories for information. We must instead view ourselves as guardians of a critical public safety tool that demands regular attention if we are to protect the public.

Sexual assault statistics are staggering, and unacceptable. In 2002, 95,136 rapes were reported to police. But US Justice Department data suggest that only 3 out of 10 rapes are reported. We also know that 1 of every 4 convicted sex offenders fails to register.

Sexual predators know no geographic or behavioral boundaries - all the more reason for all states to work together to ensure registries are accurate and accessible.

Consider this: We can flip open Consumer Reports to learn every conceivable detail of buying the safest car or can opener. Yet, in this most sophisticated age of technology, we haven't maintained an accurate directory to keep us informed of the whereabouts of convicted rapists who, by most laws of the land, are considered dangerous enough to keep track of.

The first step in fixing this system is acknowledging that the system is flawed. Then, we must be courageous enough to create, maintain, and guard a sex offender registry that is accurate and nationally accessible, no matter how Herculean the effort. To do any less, would be equal to looking a woman or child in the eye and saying, "You are not important enough for us to protect."

Lisa Madigan is the Illinois attorney general.

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