Sex offender monitoring benefits from new law

Keeping close tabs on registered sex offenders doesn't make us safe. "But it makes us safer," says Thurston County Sheriff Dan Kimball.

He and other local law enforcement officers applaud a bill signed into law by Gov. Chris Gregoire last week that creates a pool of money to pay for cops to knock on the doors of registered sex offenders and make sure they are abiding by the conditions of their release and living where they are registered.

We salute the governor and lawmakers for making in-person sex offender verifications a priority in a year when the budget deficit exceeds $2.6 billion.

According to the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs, the address verification system recently found more than 2,300 cases of offenders not living at their reported homes. That’s out of more than 19,000 offenders registered statewide.

For many years, sex offenders were on an honor system. They were required to provide the county sheriff with an address, but there was little or no follow-up by law enforcement.

“We just took them at their word that that’s where they lived,” said Don Pierce, director of the sheriff and police organization.

That all changed with the abduction and killing of 12-year-old Zina Linnick of Tacoma. She was killed by a sex offender, and law enforcement officers realized they needed more than an honor system to keep tabs on offenders. The face-to-face checks began in 2008 at the urging of a task force formed in reaction to Zina’s murder.

Those face-to-face checks became part of state law last week when Gov. Chris Gregoire signed House Bill 2534 into law. The measure had unanimous votes in the state House and Senate.

The law requires police agencies that receive part of a statewide pool of $5 million to visit Level 3 sex offenders, deemed the most dangerous, every three months. They must visit Level 2 offenders twice a year and must see Level 1 offenders, the least dangerous group, once a year.

Sheriff Kimball said Thurston County has about 700 registered sex offenders. He said Thurston was one of the first three counties to voluntarily do the face-to-face checks after the Tacoma murder.

Kimball has two detectives and a clerical staff person assigned to the offender registry program. The county is reimbursed about $140,000 through the statewide program.

Kimball is convinced the program helps improve public safety.

“There are no guarantees, especially with sex offenders,” he said. “(The program) doesn’t make us safe, but it makes us safer. We couldn’t do these face-to-face checks without the state program.”

The sheriff said there are two major selling points. First, offenders know that a detective is going to come knocking. Offenders just don’t know when. The knowledge that someone is keeping track of them, and making sure they are not around children or are living where they are registered, helps keep offenders from reoffending, Kimball said.

Secondly, if the sex offender is not at the residence, police can be alerted and the offender can be arrested. Since the county started doing the knock-and-talk checks, detectives have found several dozen violators, Kimball said. Those violations likely would not have come to light under the honor system.

When the county first started requiring offenders to report in, about one-quarter of them didn’t show up. Arrest warrants were issued, word got out in the offender community and that quickly brought the compliance levels into line.

Kimball also applauds a new section of the law that requires sex offenders without a permanent residence to report in person weekly at the sheriff’s office and come with a list of their whereabouts for the last seven days. “We can follow up on that to see if they are telling the truth,” Kimball said.

Another side benefit to the sex offender tracking system comes with the ability of citizens to know which of their neighbors are registered offenders. It’s as simple as going to the sheriff’s office’s Web site (www.co.thurston.wa.us/sheriff), clicking on “Sex Offender Watch” and entering your address. Up pops a list of registered offenders within a one-mile radius. Included is a mug shot of the offenders and details of the offenders’ conviction records.

Kudos to the cash-strapped Legislature for continuing this worthwhile public safety program.