Learning About Sex Offenders In Your Neighborhood
Information about registered sex offenders is maintained at criminaljustice.state.ny.us.
By Azi Paybarah
Astoria resident Francine Felice still lives in the house where she grew up as a kid.
Her lifelong neighbors have shuffled around Crescent Street, but still talk face to face through kitchen windows, or while sitting on white plastic chairs that offer extra seating by the front stoops.
Neighbors here talk, said Felice.
That is how she learned a 39-year-old man who sexually assaulted a 10-year-old girl, and a boy under 17, was renting a room nearby.
“I hear he’s a very nice person,” said Felice, the mother of three children under 10-years-old. “He has a right to live somewhere, but I have the right to know where he lives.”
Felice and her husband learned about their neighbor from another neighbor, not from their local school, even though both meet regularly with school officials. “I’m on the PTA, and he’s on the School Leadership Team.”
Felice’s situation is just one example of a problem that city officials attempted to address this week at a public hearing at City Hall.
The hearing discussed the way the community is made aware of convicted high-risk sex offenders living in their midst – information that is available online and is supposed to be disseminated to the community by the government, but often isn’t, leaving people just like Felice alone to get information and protect themselves.
New York State adopted a law in the 1990s that requires the state to create a registry of convicted “sex offenders,” or people convicted of various degrees of rape, sodomy, kidnapping, patronizing a prostitute or promoting prostitution, disseminating indecent material to minors, using a child in a sexual performance, promoting or possessing a sexual performance of a child.
In New York State, the Department of Criminal Justice Services maintains the registry.
The law, known as Megan’s Law, is named after seven-year-old Megan Kanka of New Jersey, who was raped and murdered by a neighbor. Megan’s attacker, who lured her into the house by promising her a puppy, had already been convicted of sexually attacking a five-year-old and attempting to attack a seven-year-old.
On July 29, 1994, 89 days after Kanka went missing, Megan’s Law was signed by then-New Jersey Governor Christine Whitman. New York’s version was signed on July 25, 1995.
The registry includes the person’s name, address, criminal history, work location, make and model of car, identifying scars, and other information.
Information on sex-offenders is maintained by the state’s Department of Criminal Justice Services, and can be obtained online at http://criminaljustice.state.ny.us, over the phone at (800) 262-3257, or in person from local police precincts, community boards, and public schools.
The amount of information available depends on the ex-offender’s likelihood of committing another sexual crime. That likelihood is determined by the sentencing court, and categorized into three levels.
According to the New York State Department of Criminal Justice Services, Level 1 sex offenders have a “low risk of repeat offense,” Level 2 offenders have a “moderate risk of repeat offense,” and Level 3 offenders have a “high risk of repeat offense and a threat to public safety exists.”
Level 1 or 2 offenders must register for 10 years. Upon request, local police precincts can give an approximate address for a Level 2 offender. Information on Level 1 offenders, or those convicted prior to Jan. 1, 1996, are not disclosed to the public.
Level 3 offenders must register for life and police officials are required to forward that information to local organizations “with vulnerable populations,” including schools, senior centers, or women’s groups.
A database of Level 3 sex offenders including what they have been convicted of, their addresses and their photos is available online, and searchable by zip code.
According to that database, Queens has 148 Level 3 sex offenders, compared to 203 in the Bronx, 290 in Manhattan, 269 in Brooklyn and 27 in Staten Island. Sometimes, sex offenders register under different names, however, so some repetition may be included in the statistics.
Francine Felice of Astoria said she learned about a sex offender in her area from a neighbor instead of officials from her child’s school. Tribune photo by Azi Paybarah
Too Much Discretion
The State is required to inform groups that have a vulnerable population about sex offenders, and for sex offenders who attack children, the schools are notified.
The current Department of Education policy about notifying parents about sexual offenders dates back to the Nov. 17, 1998: “The principal/program director is to notify parents of the receipt of the notifications on a monthly basis, and such notification is to include a copy of the photograph of the ex-offender.”
But according to one City Councilman from Queens, that policy is not being enforced.
Councilman Peter Vallone, Jr., chair of the Council’s Public Safety Committee and the man who held the April 2 public hearing, wrote a letter to Schools Chancellor Joel Klein that said, “[I]t appears this directive is not in place, as some parents are not being notified after law enforcement informs a school.”
At the hearing, Felice recounted how she learned from a neighbor, not her school, about a Level 3 sex offender living nearby.
Felice said she notified her daughter’s principal on Feb. 11. She said, “Notices just went out this week…the day I testified.” Of her daughter’s principal, Felice said, “She refused to do it. It wasn’t only my principal. I called six principals [in Queens]. Only one notified.”
Department of Education officials declined to testify at the April 2 hearing, according to Vallone, Jr. Later, department spokesperson Paul Rose said, “Letters should be sent home to parents. We will notify these schools so that they are aware of these policies.”
A form letter included in the 1998 policy about notifying parents says school officials will “reinforce with students the importance of not responding to strangers” and urges parents to teach kids “the potential danger of speaking to or going off with a stranger.”
Felice said the school’s approach is antiquated.
“When they move into your neighborhood, they’re not strangers. They’re your neighbor,” she said. Sexual offenders live in the neighborhood, meaning parents and children might not even consider them strangers, she said.
Vallone, Jr. introduced a resolution in the City Council calling on New York State to toughen penalties on Level 3 offenders who fail to reregister with the Department of Criminal Justice Services when they move. Currently that penalty is a misdemeanor, but would be upgraded to a felony if Vallone, Jr. has his way.
Also, the resolution calls for the mandatory disclosure of some Level 2 offenders, similar to the kind currently available for Level 3.
Vallone, Jr. said, “Level 3 offenders are basically pedophiles and rapists. The community needs to know if these people are in the neighborhood so they can protect their children or their daughters or themselves.”
He added, “I want mandatory disclosure in cases where there’s a danger. Obviously, if a 19-year-old kid had consensual sex with his 16-year-old girlfriend, that’s one thing. But someone deemed Level 3 by the courts who has raped three kids, that’s another story. Parents should know if that person is on their block, and know what they look like.”
Vallone, Jr. also said he called on Mayor Mike Bloomberg to create more stringent means of informing the community on a city level. He said, “We did an informal survey of schools, and at each one, information on sex offenders is given to parents differently. We need a uniform policy. We can’t have any discretion here. Right now, it’s discretionary.”
He added, “It’s the responsibility of the state to make sure the city knows. Then the city needs to tell the community. It’s not happening that way now.”
A Need For Context
Cautious about expanding the public’s access to information on sexual offenders was Executive Director Harriet Lessel of the New York City Alliance Against Sexual Assault.
She said, “[C]ommunity notification alone is not enough and…a lot of people do not know what to do with the information.” She added, “People don’t even have conversations with their kids about consensual sex, let alone sexual crimes.”
Owner Larry Menzie of the Woodside-based Queens Center for Change, which counsels sex-offenders, said the reason for the registry and post-incarceration attention is that “sex offenders tend to offend more often before they’re caught.”
Although offenders are responsible for their actions, Menzie said certain situations can sometimes act as “triggers” for their behavior. Restricting access to parks, schools, or places where children are likely to be mitigates exposure to those triggers, he said.