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May 02, 2006
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Pa. audit sees flaws in Megan's Law use

Copyright 2006 P.G. Publishing Co.

By MICHAEL A. FUOCO
PITTSBURGH POST-GAZETTE
 
There have been improvements in the administration of Megan's Law by the Pennsylvania State Police, but major deficiencies remain, such as Web postings of incomplete and inaccurate information about the state's more than 8,000 sex offenders, according to findings in a special performance audit released yesterday by state Auditor General Jack Wagner.

Improvements include better communication with other law enforcement agencies, more listings on the state's Megan's Law Web site and an increase of state police assigned to the Megan's Law Section from three to seven, according to the audit.

"[But] even with the improvements, there are still far too many deficiencies that prevent Pennsylvania from doing its best to protect citizens, particularly children," Mr. Wagner said in releasing the 131-page document.

The findings of the performance audit include references to a Pittsburgh Post-Gazette investigative article, "Making a Mess of Megan's Law," published Nov. 27 that showed when it comes to providing information about sex offenders that people might use to protect themselves or their families, Pennsylvania falls far short of many other states.

Among the deficiencies cited in the audit and the Post-Gazette story is the fact the current law, first enacted in 1995 and amended in 2000 and 2004, does not permit state police to post on its Web site the home addresses of all convicted sex offenders living in Pennsylvania.

As of yesterday, the Web site included 8,250 sex offenders identified by name and crime. For 8,130 of them, the only residence information listed is city, county and ZIP code, leaving open the question the public most wants answers to: Exactly where are they living? Street addresses are provided only for the most dangerous offenders found by a court to be "sexually violent offenders," currently numbering 120 in the state.

Mr. Wagner and state police Commissioner Col. Jeffrey B. Miller, who appeared at a joint news conference in Harrisburg, called for the law to be amended to permit the listing of street addresses for all sex offenders.

Additionally, Mr. Wagner said improvements could be made without legislative action, such as informing the public if victims were children or whether the sex offender is currently incarcerated.

But in an interview with the Post-Gazette, Col. Miller said his department's chief counsel's interpretation of Pennsylvania's Megan's Law is that what is currently being provided on the Web site is what's currently allowable under the law.

"The last thing I want is bad case law" to be created by a successful court challenge. " I don't want to set this back," he said.

Col. Miller said the safest way to include much more detailed information, which he supports, is to amend the law so there is no ambiguity about what specific information can be legally disseminated.

"The auditor general and I both have the same goal, to make this as strong as it can be, but we need to do it legislatively," he said. "I would like to put a lot more information in with regard to address information, victim status, method of operation."

Col. Miller said he and Mr. Wagner plan to meet with legislative caucuses within a few months to explain what needs to be amended. The hope, he said, is to see a refined, much better Megan's Law by year's end.

"This is very important, too important not to go forward and have it passed by the General Assembly and signed by the governor," he said.

Col. Miller said one recommendation in the findings that won't take legislative action is Mr. Wagner's call for allowing Web site visitors to sort out the sexually violent offenders from all others. Links to do that are currently being put into place, he said.

The audit noted that the Post-Gazette reported the state police Megan's Law Section refused the newspaper's request for such separate lists.

"The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported ... the only way to get those names was to click on the name of every registrant listed," the audit said. "We assigned an auditor to do that very thing. It took nearly 21 hours to determine there were just 112 predators among the 8,000 registrants in total."

Parents for Megan's Law, a New York-based advocacy group, last year issued a "national report card," listing how well states disseminate information about sex offenders. Pennsylvania was among 22 states that received an "F." But Col. Miller noted the same group also said the national average for sexual offenders not complying with the law was 24 percent -- more than three times Pennsylvania's rate of 7.5 percent.

Florida, which earned an "A+" from the group, provides on its Web site the street addresses of all sex offenders; dated photos; personal details such as height, weight, scars and tattoos; the gender of victims and whether they were minors; and the status of offenders -- supervised, confined in a county, state or federal facility, released or absconded.

The federal Megan's Law, and the laws that it mandates in the states, are named for Megan Kanka, a 7-year-old New Jersey girl who was kidnapped, raped and murdered in 1994 by a twice-convicted sex offender who lived across the street. The Kanka family believed that they could have protected Megan had they known their neighbor's background.

The audit is available on the auditor general's Web site at www.auditorgen.state.pa.us. The state's Megan's Law Web site is www.pameganslaw.state.pa.us.

Full story: Pa. audit sees flaws in Megan's Law use






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