Victoria police verify sex offenders' addresses

April 20, 2010 at 5:01 p.m.
Updated April 20, 2010 at 11:21 p.m.

The Victoria Police Department wants to be sure where sex offenders live in the city.

For the past five weeks, officers working with the Sex Offender Accountability Program updated the details of their sex offender registry.

"We believe we can better accommodate the public by physically going out and verifying the information we are given," said Detective Jeff Lehnert.

Lehnert said the 12-officer task force updates the employment, vehicle, contact information and addresses more than 100 offenders living in Victoria.

"We want our information to be as accurate as possible," he said. "If we don't keep up with where they live, then it can slow an investigation down if something was to happen."

Michael Kostella, 31, a father of three young girls, has lived on Northampton Circle for four years. He had positive comments about the police departments' efforts to verify offenders' addresses.

"I think it's fantastic. They need to stay diligent," Kostella said. "That's one of my biggest fears that something could happen to my little girls."

Sex offenders are required to come into the office and verify information every 90 days or once a year, depending on the severity of their crime and their number of previous convictions, Lehnert said.

Sex offenders in Victoria mainly fall into two categories: post-10 and lifers. Post-10 offenders must register for 10 years after they are discharged from their sentence, while lifers must continue to register for life.

Officers are a little less than halfway through physically verifying addresses provided to the police department, Lehnert said.

Tela Mange, public information officer for the Texas Department of Public Safety said, there's no way of knowing the exact accuracy of the site's information because the information is provided by more than hundreds of law enforcement agencies statewide.

"The system depends on the sex offenders reporting that they have moved to a registering agency," Mange said. "It's as accurate as law enforcement agencies are able to make it."

Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas lawyer Jacqueline Cullom said organizations are able to publish sex offender information without legal ramifications.

"We would strongly advocate for the publishing of this information," Cullom said. "I am not aware of any legal issues arising from the publication of sex offender information. This information is specifically made public by state law."

Derek Van Luchene, president and founder of Ryan United, supports publishing accurate and detailed sex offender information.

Ryan United is a Montana-based nonprofit organization that works with criminal justice professionals nationwide to bring together resources for education, enforcement and development of programs related to the tracking and management of sex offenders.

The issue of deciding what sexual offender information, if any, should be published is a nationwide dilemma, Van Luchene said.

"If you are going to let offenders out on the street, then you have to release that information. It's a must," Van Luchene said. "At the very least there should be a name and photo of an offender."

When it comes to publishing sex offender information, Van Luchene posed the question: "If you have a rattlesnake in the room, would you rather have the lights on or off?

He explained some of the benefits of publishing the information.

"It puts them on notice, not only are the police watching them, but the community is watching them too."

Additionally, Van Luchene said, the implementation of the Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act could aid states even more with sex offender management.

Signed into law by President George W. Bush in July 2006, the act called for the creation of a national sex offender database available through the Internet, increased penalties and tightened loopholes that allowed sexual predators to fall through the cracks. The law also called for the organization of sex offenders into three tiers and new mandates on how often offenders must update their whereabouts.

"The only way to get a good handle on how we handle offenders is to get compliant with the act. There's so much inconsistency it allows offenders to slip under the radar," Van Luchene said.

The act called for all states to originally be in compliance by July 2009. However, the deadline was extended to April.

Texas is one of several states that are not yet compliant with the law's mandates.

Currently, Texas organizes offenders by dividing them into level one, two and three offenders. These levels correspond with low, moderate and high risk levels.

As far as vigilantes using published sex offender information to take the law into their own hands, Van Luchene said, "You are going to have that occasional person who is going to harass an offender or do something else, but if law enforcement is being vigilant with these offenders, then they are going to stave that off."

Van Luchene, who advocates for more face-to-face contact with registered sex offenders, was pleased to learn about the Victoria Police Department's offender address update.

"They really deserve some recognition," he said. "As a community member, if I saw my local law enforcement taking that type of upper hand, I'd feel safer."

Although the Victoria task force is doing what it can to verify addresses, Lehnert said its efforts are not without difficulties.

"You have some people who may live with a person who doesn't like to talk to police. They're scared because they don't know what they're getting into," said Lehnert. "From our standpoint, we hate that, but we understand."

In some cases, officers have had to make multiple trips to locate some offenders who were not at their given address when officers stopped by.

"If we have someone who is trying to fly under the radar, we don't want to give them a heads up," Lehnert said. "If we've been going out in the evenings and have been unable to reach someone, then we will change our tactics and go in the daytime. If we've gone during the week, then we'll change it up and go on the weekend."

Lehnert reiterated that the task force is only verifying addresses, not zoning mandates imposed upon probationers or parolees.

"We leave that up to probation/parole to police their own people," he said.

Sarah Holloway, a probation officer who handles the sex offender caseload, shared some of the zoning restrictions that can be placed upon probationers.

"Usually, it's 1,000 feet from a school, park, daycare, or public youth center, or a place that caters to children," said Holloway. "After two years on probation, with the permission of a judge and a therapist, that can be amended."

Van Luchene advocates for sex offender residency restrictions. However, he said, sometimes they could be too restricting.

"You have to have some residency restrictions laws, but they have to make sense. An offender who just got out of jail for raping a first-grader shouldn't be allowed to live by a school," he said. "Having too many restrictions is counterproductive, especially if they are so overwhelming that there is nowhere for them to live. Then, you can't keep track of them."

Since the task force began, Holloway said, her office has not found any sex offender probationers living in locations where they should not be living.

Northcrest resident Doug Borden, 37, said he was reassured to know about efforts to verify the accuracy of the sex offenders' information.

"I'd rather they not be in my neighborhood at all, but there's nothing I can do about that," Borden said. "Hopefully, it will prevent someone from being hurt."



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