BY NICK BUGLIONE
As tens of thousands of Queens kids prepare for the back to school
days, bus rides to school, and the fall days of outdoor playtime, 600 convicted sex
offenders are living in their borough.
Who are the people on your block? Out of
the nearly ten-thousand registered sex-offenders
in the state, 582 live throughout Queens.
Tribune Photos by Ira Cohen
Of the 9,433 sex offenders registered
in New York State, 582 live in Queens
six of which are designated as high-risk, level three offenders, according
to Scott Steinhardt of the Division of Criminal Justice Services (DCJS). The "level
three" description means that you can find out from your
local precinct or through the states special telephone number where they live, what
they were convicted of, what their sentence was and get a picture of what they look like.
One lives in Flushing, one in Jackson Heights, one in Corona, one in Long Island City, one
in Queens Village, and one in Elmhurst.
It is all part of the provisions that
became State Law in 1995 and is called "Megans Law."
Following the murder of two
New Jersey youths (Megan Kanka and Amanda Wengert) by a convicted rapist, New York joined
many other states in signing into law the Sex Offender Registration Act (SORA) in July of
The act established a registry to tracking
all convicted sex offenders in the state and provide public access to the information when
one of the convicted criminals moves into their community.
Now every individual convicted of
certain sex offenses such as statutory rape or child molestation since the
act took effect on Jan. 21 1996 are required to register with the Division of Criminal
Justice Services (DCJS).
Within the State Sex Offender Registry
there is a three-tiered system which classifies offenders based on the severity of their
crime and the risk that they will commit the crime again: level one (low risk), level two
(moderate risk), level three (high risk). How much information is made available to the
public is determined by the convicts risk level designation.
According to Caroline Quartararo,
spokeswoman for the DCJS, the local police are notified about the presence of level one
offenders, but the public information available for release is only permitted that the
offenders are listed with the registry.
Police can disseminate general information
regarding level two offenders to the public, while specific information including
physical descriptions, the nature of the previous crime, exact address and photographs
can be obtained for level three.
All sex offenders must verify their home
address with the registry annually for a period of 10 years. Failure to do so constitutes
a class A misdemeanor, with subsequent offenses punishable as class D felonies.
The highest risk level offenders must
personally notify local police of their address every 90 days for life, unless legally
relieved of that obligation.
Earlier this year, the state passed
legislation expanding the category of offenses covered under the SORA to include
convictions in third degree aggravated sexual abuse and first and second degree course of
sexual conduct against children.
The addendum additionally requires that all
New York residents convicted of a sex crime outside the states jurisdiction be
included in the DCJS catalogue if their former residence requires sex offender
"Megans Law provides tools to
parents and concerned citizens so they can be more aware of the location of sex offenders,
especially sexually violent predators," said State Deputy Majority Leader Dean G.
Skelos. "By expanding notification and the number of crimes covered by the law, New
York State is making Megans Law even better."
Once a registered offender
moves into a Queens community, the local police precinct is notified by the state. The
police in turn can, but are not bound by any state regulation to, notify schools and
"other agencies with vulnerable populations" of the presence of level two and
All local police precincts are additionally
provided with a state-produced Subdirectory of High Risk Offenders that the public can
Queens residents can also access
information regarding area sex offenders by contacting the Sex Offender Registry
Information Line at 1-900-288-3838. Fifty cents is charged for each calla fee
reduced in May by Governor George Pataki from $5 previously.
Up-to-the-minute information on level three
sex offenders can be found on the DCJS web site. The site address is
"Providing this data on the Internet
makes crucial information regarding sexual predators available at the click of a
mouse," said State Director of Criminal Justice Katherine Lapp.
New York politicians on both
the state and federal level have argued that although the SORA is intended to protect the
public, the law lacks teeth.
According to Steinhardt, when the state
notifies the police of a sex offenders presence, the police control what information
on the offender they wish to distribute, and whether they want to distribute the
information at all.
"Its up to the police department
what they want to disseminate," said Steinhardt. "The DCJS recommends that
police and law enforcement set up their own guidelines."
Police officials confirmed that the process
is by and large a "passive activity" in which the information is maintained at
the precincts where it is readily available for public access.
Assemblyman Michael Cohen said this
discretionary release of information has created a problem within his district and has
virtually rendered the law "useless."
"Local law enforcement may choose to
notify or not notify local entities of local school districts," said Cohen. "The
Board of Education [also] has the option not to notify."
When the police recently notified the Board
of Education, who in turn informed District 24, about the presence of a dangerous sex
offender in the Glendale area, they disclosed the name and description of the person but
didnt provide a photograph, Cohen said.
"There was a notification made by the
NYPD to the Board of Education, which then notified the local school board," said
"Without a photo the whole
notification process is useless," Cohen said, adding that without definitive
identification, school staff can not adequately protect their children.
He went on to note that the state currently
does not provide funding for school boards aiding in the notification of parents
meaning that the districts themselves must put up the money needed to send advisory
When the state legislature reconvenes in
January, Cohen said hes going to propose a modification to the SORA that would
revise the law in three main areas.
If Cohens addition passes, it would
require the state to provide funding to aid local entities in the notification process and
make it mandatory for photos to accompany information regarding level two and three
"In respect to level three offenders,
I will no longer leave it to the judgement of local law enforcement," Cohen said,
noting that the new law would require police to at least notify proper community agencies
about the presence of high risk offenders.
Since the conception of
Megans Law, the bill has been heavily scrutinized by civil liberty organizations.
Believing it to be a violation of the
Eighth Amendment, which protects against cruel and unusual punishment, opponents have
dubbed it the "Scarlet Letter Law." Some Queens residents contend that such laws
place an unjust mark on criminals that jeopardizes their chance of a normal life outside
of prison, while others feel the law isnt stringent enough.
"People have a right to privacy,"
said Matthew OKeeffe, a 22-year-old Bellerose resident. "These people did their
time in jail and now theyre forced to pay for the rest of their lives."
Astoria resident Michael Johansen
concurred. "Its a law based on politics not results," said the
32-year-old. "You shouldnt have to walk around with a scarlet letter."
For the past 10 years, Teri Messina has
been the director of clinical services at the Center for Children and Families, an
organization that works with both victims of sexual abuse and offenders.
"The law has an impact on everyone, it
makes families feel safe but its a false sense of security," she said. "I
guess the public wants to think of sex offenders as the stranger thats lurking in
the corner, but what we find is that 98 percent of the sex offender population are
[related to the victims]."
Messina went on to note that she believes
the SORA addresses only a small fraction of the problem, and that the government would be
better served by funding programs that try to treat sex offenders.
"If the treatment is mandated,
theres hope. In order to mandate it, it must be fully funded," she said.
Yet still others contend that laws like the
SORA are essential to the safety of children and can be hardly deemed harsh when
considering the large emotional and physical toll such crimes have on youth.
"People have a right to privacy, but on the other hand
[with something like this] people have the right to know," said a Flushing resident
who asked not to be identified further.
The state legislature is
currently pushing a bill that would require criminal background checks for any individual
who has substantial contact with children.
If passed, the bill, introduced by Yonkers
Assemblyman Michael Spano, would mandate the screening of all employees and volunteers of
little leagues, Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, day camps for previous crimes.
"At present the only agencies that
require criminal background checks on their employees are the New York City Public School
system and individuals applying to be aides for the elderly," said Councilman Alfonso
Stabile. Stabile has penned a resolution that will go before the City Council Committee on
General Welfare in support of the state bill.
"This bill is about protecting
children, its as simple as that," Stabile said. "As a parent, I want to
know if the man or woman associated with my child has a history of child molestation or
other instances of criminal behavior that would put my child at risk."