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Sex offenders, advocates push for Va. law notice

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Saturday, May 15, 2010; 12:05 PM

When Robert Beckwith was preparing to leave federal prison after 11 years, he knew his label as sex offender would mean there were certain places he couldn't visit or live. He had no idea it would be so difficult to find that information.

In April, the 53-year-old Beckwith left prison in Massachusetts and headed to a northern Virginia homeless shelter.

Beckwith wrote to the Virginia attorney general's office asking for help and was directed to Virginia State Police, which administers the sex offender registry. He wrote to the state police twice with no answer.

"I feel like I'm being set up to fail," said Beckwith, who was convicted of having sex with an underage girl on a military base.

Unlike some states, Virginia doesn't provide its 16,500 registered sex offenders with a list of restrictions on where they can live, work and play. Instead, registered offenders must search state websites to determine how to comply with laws meant to keep them away from schools, parks and other places where children could congregate.

Officials say it would be too costly to provide copies of the laws to all offenders and that the websites are sufficient.

Wayne Bowers, director of the Sex Abuse Treatment Alliance in Oklahoma, said by not informing sex offenders of the laws, states are opening the door for individuals to fail -- and reoffend.

"If these people fail, that means there is going to be another victim," he said.

Notification laws vary across the nation.

Some states, like New Mexico, spell out the restrictions on a website, while others, such as North Carolina and Indiana, require offenders to read over a list of the laws and sign that they understand it while in the presence of a law enforcement officer.

In Kentucky, offenders receive a notice each time a law changes. There are no state residency or work restrictions in Massachusetts, but some localities have enacted ordinances.

Just like with other laws, sex offenders can't claim ignorance. If they are caught too close to a school, park or, in several states, a church, they could be charged with a felony and sent back to prison. Failing to register on time also is a felony.


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