In the early days of the sex offender registry program, more than 20 years ago, news that an offender was moving on to the block prompted neighborhood mobilization and sometimes even vigilantism. Today, a yawn is more likely. But defenders of the system say the program is working better than ever.
The King County Sheriff recently scheduled a neighborhood meeting in Shoreline to answer questions about a Level 3 sex offender who registered his new address in the area. Nobody showed up. But that's not unusual.
"The attendance is usually zero to three people," said Dawn Larsen with the Washington Association of Sheriff's and Police Chiefs. She argues that attendance at those neighborhood meetings is not the best gauge of public interest. She says the state now operates a public website called Offender Watch.
"They don't show up at the meetings, but the system, "Offender Watch," actually helps to send out fliers and postcards that the meeting is coming and it also, on those postcards, tells them that they can also go online. So I suspect most folks that are interested are looking online rather than going to the informational meetings," said Larsen.
Offender Watch is a centralized, statewide database with a search function that provides real-time information about sex offenders. It allows the public to register for email alerts when a Level 2 or Level 3 sex offender moves into their area, or to track specific people.
A recent survey in Texas, which has the second largest sex offender registry in the nation, found that relatively few people were using it. Washington doesn't have good statistics on overall use of its website, except for the numbers of people who sign up for notification. More than 46,000 people have signed up in the four years it's been running and more than 710,000 notifications have gone out.
Still, that's just two percent of residents statewide getting the alerts. If the notifications are computer generated, it's possible to send them to more people. But Larsen argues that the alerts might easily be ignored if they're not requested.
"I think that's one of the things that we're finding is how much information is too much?"
The Texas survey included two curious findings about the public use of the sex offender registry there. Access was lower in neighborhoods where sex crimes happened or sex offenders were living and the most active users of the registry were victims, not of sex crimes but, of identity theft.