Holes In The Safety Net

Megan's Law was made for sex offenders like Vincent Santana. With six convictions for rape, sexual assault and related sex crimes since the 1970s, the Las Vegas resident was just the type of ex-con the cops--and neighbors--would want to keep an eye on after his release in 2001. But when Santana, now 45, moved to another part of the city a few months later and failed to notify authorities as required, the police lost track of him. Within weeks, he was arrested and charged with assaulting a prostitute and making sexually threatening calls to at least 19 other women from a jailhouse phone while he awaited trial. (He was subsequently acquitted of the assault charges, and has pleaded not guilty to making the threatening calls.)

Passed by Congress in 1996, Megan's Law--named after a 7-year-old New Jersey girl who was raped and murdered by a repeat child molester in 1994--requires states to keep records of the whereabouts of freed rapists and child molesters, and to make those lists available to the public. But a new survey reveals that state and local authorities are doing a horrible job keeping track. As many as one quarter--100,000--of the nation's paroled sex offenders are currently unaccounted for, according to a report released by the advocacy group Parents for Megan's Law earlier this month. California and Massachusetts can't account for 44 percent of their offenders, while Oklahoma and Tennessee have lost track of 35 to 50 percent of theirs. Eighteen states and the District of Columbia couldn't even tell the group how many offenders were missing.

The reasons for the disappearances vary. Like Santana, some men registered, but then moved; others haven't registered in years, or never bothered in the first place (penalties for failing to register vary from state to state). Since sex offenders are the highest recidivists among violent criminals, the result is a public-safety device that looks solid, but isn't. "How can communities feel safe if we don't really keep track?" asks Laura Ahearn, director of Parents for Megan's Law.

The big problem is that the law isn't airtight. While states are required to register sex offenders at least once a year or risk losing federal crime fighting funds, the burden to report in lies with the offenders themselves in most states. "We have an honor system for dishonorable people," says California state Sen. Dean Florez, one of several officials around the country who'd like to tighten the law.

Spending extra to aggressively police the problem seems to help. Connecticut officials say they can successfully track 97.6 percent of their offenders because a special unit of state troopers teams with local cops to find those who fail to register every 90 days.

Despite its flaws, Megan's Law still helps far more than it hurts, cops say. In fact, it ultimately helped put Vincent Santana back behind bars. After his acquittal on the sexual-assault charges, a second jury convicted him of failing to properly register, a crime that made him a "habitual offender," Nevada's version of the three-strike law. His lawyer is appealing the sentence: life without the possibility of parole.