Sex offenders, advocates push for Va. law notice

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.

And while lawmakers are quick to add to the list of restrictions for sex offenders, few are willing to pass laws that favor a group so generally despised.

A bill to require Virginia State Police to give offenders a list of restrictions has failed the past two years. Meanwhile, about a dozen new restrictions or enhanced penalties were enacted.

"It's not a luxury to know these rules, it's critical to success and for public safety," Reform Sex Offender Laws of Virginia founder Mary Devoy wrote to legislators after they adjourned in March without bringing the bill up for a vote in committee.

Between Dec. 1, 2008, and Nov. 30, 2009, Virginia State Police made more than 16,000 visits to offenders' homes and their workplaces to verify their addresses. During that time, 972 offenders were arrested for failing to register or for providing false information. Nearly 400 of those were convicted.

Virginia State Police do not track how many offenders are arrested for violating other laws, such as living too close to a school, said Lt. Jeff Baker, whose division oversees the sex offender registry and investigative unit.

While state police don't provide offenders with a list of the laws, Baker said troopers are available either in person or over the phone.

Baker said the department had revised registration paperwork to better inform offenders of their responsibilities. The agency also is working to update its website to make it easier for offenders to know the other laws.

"We're doing what we can do to work with them and ensure compliance," Baker said.

Listing the laws on the state police website isn't practical since not everyone on the registry has access to a computer, Devoy said. Also, in some localities, such as Virginia Beach, registered sex offenders are not allowed to have Internet access.

It would be better if the information was included in the certified packet of information each offender receives in the mail each year, she said.

The Department of Corrections informs and trains probation and parole officers about changes to the law, but it does not provide offenders with any lists, said department spokesman Larry Traylor.

Beckwith said he doesn't understand why the state isn't more willing to help those who are wanting to obey the law.

"There are some who want a second chance at a decent life," he said. "Giving them the information could be the key."

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