Society’s lepers

The state classifies 2,400 sex offenders as dangerous and likely to reoffend, but some question the accuracy of those judgements

on a chilly night in early February, the Massa­chusetts website that informs the public where the state’s most dangerous sex offenders are living indicates 41 of them are staying at Boston’s Pine Street Inn. The homeless shelter’s guests, according to their website profiles, include men who have raped and abused children, committed indecent assault and battery on children, raped women, and engaged in incestuous intercourse.

Level 3 sex offenders from the Sex Offender Registry Board’s website.

But the state website’s tally is wrong. Most of the sex offenders are not at the Pine Street Inn that night, and it’s unclear where they are. At the request of CommonWealth, the homeless shelter checked its guest list against the 41 names from the state website and found only 10 were actually at the homeless shelter or an affiliated facility that night. Some of the others had stayed at Pine Street Inn in the previous 30 days, but quite a few hadn’t been there in more than a month and one had never been there, according to the shelter’s records.

Officials at other homeless shelters across the state report similar experiences. They say homeless sex offenders often register with the state as living at a shelter, but then move on after staying there for a day or two.

“Where are they?” asks Lyndia Downie, executive director of the Pine Street Inn. “This whole system of monitoring sex offenders seems to be creating a false sense of security. It represents that we know where these people are and we’re watching them. But if you don’t know where half or more of them are, then you’re not really watching them.”

Sex offenders are the lepers of 21st century American society. Their crimes are so repulsive that states not only prosecute them and put them in jail but track them after they get out. Massa­chusetts posts the descriptions and locations of the most dangerous sex offenders on the Internet. A growing number of Massachu­setts communities are passing ordinances restricting where sex offenders can live. Sex offenders are also barred from federally subsidized housing and state law prohibits them from staying at nursing, convalescent, and rest homes.

But a small yet influential group of researchers, treatment providers, and attorneys is questioning whether the shunning of sex offenders is doing anything to enhance public safety. They say the system Massachusetts uses to identify the most dangerous sex offenders is dated and flawed, and they claim the growing restrictions on where sex offenders can live is having the effect of driving them underground where they are more likely to reoffend.

Fred Smith, the director of program development, research, and evaluation at St. Francis House in Boston, has made outreach to sex offenders a part of his organization’s mission to offer shelter and training to poor and homeless people. He says he doesn’t want to be portrayed as a sex offender sympathizer, but he pulls no punches in his assessment of the way the state classifies sex offenders. He says the system “borders on voodoo” and questions the value of posting an offender’s picture and information on the web.

For those who discover a sex offender living in their neighborhood, he asks: “What do you do with that information? Most people just become anxious or discriminate.  It does nothing to enhance public safety. In fact, it may be doing just the opposite.”

Regulating individuals

Unlike most criminal justice systems, which regulate behavior, the state’s Sex Offender Registry Board regulates individuals.

The board classifies sex offenders—those convicted of any one of more than 25 sex crimes—based on their dangerousness. Level 3s are considered the most dangerous and at high risk to reoffend, Level 2s are at moderate risk, and Level 1s are at low risk. Pictures and personal information about Level 3s are available on the board’s website, searchable by name and community. Information on Level 2s in a community can be obtained through the local police department, while Level 1 data is not released to the public.

Sex offenders are supposed to register annually with their local police department, or every 30 days if they are homeless. In Boston, registrations are handled by the sex offender unit, which consists of five officers and a supervisor. A Boston Police spokes­woman says the unit handles registrations by appointment (4,192 of them last year) and also verifies where offenders are living by visiting them twice a year.

State records indicate the number of Level 3 offenders, those considered most dangerous, has been steadily in­creasing, in part because the Sex Offender Registry Board has been whittling down a backlog of unclassified offenders. There were 1,565 Level 3 offenders in June 2008, 2,296 in November 2011, and 2,400 as of late February.

The board has a lot of information about Level 3 sex offenders in its database, but does almost no analysis of it. To conduct its own analysis, Common­Wealth built a database of Level 3 offenders by transcribing information from the board’s website. Since the state website is constantly being updated, Common­Wealth’s database offers only a snapshot in time, based on data collected in late February.

The snapshot shows all but nine of the 2,400 Level 3 offenders are men, with eight women and one person listed as male who changed his name from David to Debbie Moccia. The offenders range in age from 19 to 90, with the average age being 48. Those 60 or older, a group considered far less likely to reoffend, make up 16 percent of Level 3s.

In terms of racial makeup, 77 percent are white, 22 percent are black, and the remaining 1 percent are Asian-Pacific islanders or Am­eri­can Indians. (None are listed as Hispanic because that designation is not included in most law en­forcement databases.) The racial makeup of the state as a whole is 80 percent white, 9.6 percent His­panic, 6.6 percent black, and 5.3 percent Asian, according to Census data.

An overwhelming majority of Level 3s—77 percent—report no work address, an indication they have no job. Nearly 20 percent of those who do report a work address live at the same address, an indication they are working from home.

CommonWealth’s database indicates 12 percent of Level 3 offenders either identify themselves as homeless or list a homeless shelter as their address. Another 5 percent are listed as being in violation of the state’s reporting laws, with their whereabouts unknown.

In percentage terms, the homelessness problem is most severe in Cambridge and Hyannis, where half of Level 3 offenders have no homes. The largest number of homeless Level 3 offenders are in Boston, where 34 percent, or 159, of the 467 sex offenders identify themselves as homeless or living in a shelter. About a dozen homeless offenders in Boston who wear GPS devices issued by the state Pro­ba­tion Department exchange them daily because they don’t have access to electricity for recharging the units.

Level 3 sex offenders congregate in urban areas. Nearly 80 percent live in one of the state’s 55 cities, which account for 51 percent of the state’s population. Boston has the most Level 3 offenders; the state capital is home to 9 percent of the state’s population but nearly 20 percent of the Level 3 offenders. The 11 Gateway Cities, which include Springfield, Worcester, New Bedford, Fall River, Law­rence, and Lowell, are home to 15 percent of the state’s population but 38 percent of its Level 3s.

Thirty-three cities and towns have ordinances restricting where Level 3 sex offenders can live and in some cases where they can go. The ordinances typically prohibit Level 3 sex offenders from living within 1,000 feet of schools, churches, parks, beaches, elderly facilities, and day care centers. Some communities also bar sex offenders from the public library.

Lynn recently forced a Level 3 offender to vacate his home because it was within 1,000 feet of an elementary school and a park. The state’s website indicates he moved to Peabody, which doesn’t have an ordinance.

Two sex offenders, who asked not to be identified, said they thought their situations are fairly typical. One was convicted of rape and abuse of a child and the other was arrested multiple times for indecent exposure. Both live with their elderly mothers and are unemployed. The two men said they found jobs—one doing auto detailing and the other restaurant work—but were fired after customers learned of their backgrounds and complained.

Both offenders expressed remorse for their actions and said they are in treatment, which they said is the best way to keep people like them from reoffending. One of the men said he thinks only about 10 percent of Level 3 offenders are hard core, while the rest are unlikely to reoffend as long as they receive treatment. “Someone hears sex offender and they lump everyone into the same category,” he says.

The other man says he lives in a town with an ordinance restricting where he can live and where he can go. He said he understands the motivation behind the ordinance. “The concern is understandable,” he says. “If I had a kid, I wouldn’t want him living next to a sex offender.”

The 24 factors

Saundra Edwards grew up in Roxbury and attended school in Framingham under the METCO program. She studied at Wellesley College, went on to Suffolk Law, and then worked 13 years as a prosecutor at the Plymouth County district attorney’s office, the last seven handling sexual assault cases. “I had a very good conviction rate—a whole lot more guiltys than not, a whole lot more pedophiles in jail than not,” she says. “I would pour my heart into it.”


Saundra Edwards, a former prosecutor, is the chair of the
Sex Offender Registry Board. Photo by J. Cappuccio

Now she is pouring her heart into the decade-old Sex Offender Registry Board in Salem. Gov. Deval Patrick appointed Edwards chair in late 2007, putting her in charge of six other board members, 46 employees, and a $3.5 million budget. She brings a folksy prosecutor’s attitude to the job.

A mother of two sons, Edwards says she resides on a street with sex offenders. (She asked that her hometown not be identified.) Even so, she is not a fan of ordinances that restrict where sex offenders can live. “I don’t think I, as a mom, would push for it, but as the chair of the SORB, I wouldn’t comment on it,” she says.

During a lengthy interview, the one area where she thought the board could do a much better job was distinguishing between those Level 3 offenders who are white and those who are Hispanic. She says she worries that someone might fail to identify a person as an offender because they are obviously Hispanic but identified as white.

“It’s a problem. I’m being honest with you,” she says. “We want our information to be as accurate as possible. It’s not and that bothers me.”

As for the missing sex offenders at the Pine Street Inn, Edwards says: “That is concerning, but the SORB is doing what it can with the police and if we find out that individuals are not properly registering, of course they would be subject to being brought in for prosecution.”

Edwards is very comfortable with the work the board does and brushes aside complaints by some psychologists and attorneys who criticize the board’s classification criteria. She says she constantly receives positive feedback from the “community of moms.” She adds: “They’ll ap­proach me in the supermarket and say, ‘Right on. I feel comfortable with what you do and the information you provide.’”

Edwards says the board attempts to gauge sex offenders’ dangerousness and their likelihood to reoffend. The system the board uses is qualitative and quantitative, relying primarily on 24 factors that have been approved by the Supreme Judicial Court. The factors include evidence of substance abuse, response to treatment, the victim impact statement, the age of the offender when the offense oc­cur­red, the relationship between the offender and victim, and whether the victim was a child. Edwards says most, but not all, psychologists agree the factors help predict whether an offender is likely to commit another sex crime.

“I have to say, in these past four years, we have had, I don’t know how many, but a whole lot of Levels 3s who have reoffended,” she says. “So these factors are tried and true. We’re comfortable with what we have.”

Edwards has no data supporting her claim that large numbers of Level 3s—those consider the most dangerous and likely to reoffend—actually do reoffend. Common­Wealth’s database indicates 32 percent of Level 3 offenders have more than one conviction date, but many of those convictions occurred before the board started operating in 2001.

David Medoff, a forensic psychologist who served on the Sex Offender Registry Board when it was first created, says he resigned because of the way the agency weighs the factors it uses to evaluate the dangerousness of offenders. “The Supreme Judicial Court has approved the legality of what they do, but that is separate and un­related to the accuracy of what they do,” he says.

Laurie Guidry, a psychologist from Mon­tague who is president of the Massachu­setts Association for the Treat­ment of Sexual Abusers, says most other states use a quantitative system that is scientifically validated to gauge an offender’s likelihood of reoffending. “We absolutely need to be tough on high-risk offenders, but we also need to be smart,” she says. “There’s been an explosion of changes in the field, but Massa­chu­setts hasn’t kept up.”

Eric Tennen, an attorney with Swomley & Tennen in Boston, says the Sex Offender Registry Board hasn’t up­dated its factors since 2002, and even then they were based largely on data from the 1990s. Current age, for example, is not included among the board’s 24 factors, but Tennen says research initially released in 2002 indicates the likelihood of someone reoffending after turning 60 falls dramatically. The board refused to take an offender’s age into account in classifications until 2010, when the Supreme Judicial Court ruled the board’s actions were arbitrary and capricious. The board says it now considers age when classifying an offender, but current age is still not included among the listed factors.

John Doe

The case of John Doe, the pseudonym given to a sex offender in legal proceedings before the Supreme Judicial Court last year, offers an inside look at how classifications are done at the Sex Offender Registry Board and reveals the growing concern of the state’s top court about restrictions on where sex offenders can live. The Sex Offender Registry Board attempts to gauge sex offenders’ dangerousness and their liklihood to reoffend.In 1992, Doe was involved in two separate sexual offenses involving young male children. He was tried, found guilty, and sent to jail. After leaving prison, he violated his parole for reasons unrelated to any sex offense and was sent back to jail. He emerged from prison in 2008 suffering from glaucoma, a seizure disorder, and heart problems. He also had Asperger’s disorder, which caused him to misperceive social cues and impaired his social behavior.

SORB classified him as Level 3, but he never got the paperwork because he spent most of his first year out of prison living in a homeless shelter. According to court documents, he was mugged several times and ended up with a cracked eye socket that sent him to the hospital. He was subsequently transferred to a nursing home and, in February 2009, to a small rest home in Boston.

By all accounts, Doe did well at the rest home, but the Boston police ordered him to leave because a state law bars Level 3 sex offenders from staying at a convalescent or nursing home, a rest home, a charitable home for the aged, or an intermediate care facility for the intellectually disabled. The law was passed in 2006 after John Enos, a Level 3 offender staying at a nursing home in Norwood, allegedly raped his 90-year-old roommate. Enos had previously served 15 years in prison for sexually assaulting his 9-year-old daughter.

With the help of a public defender, Doe challenged his eviction. He also convinced the Sex Offender Registry Board to take a fresh look at his classification and make a determination about his level of dangerousness. Fred Davis, of St. Francis House, says Doe, whom he knew, was not dangerous at all. He was 65, frail, and, as Davis says, “a shuffler” who walked unsteadily.

Deliberations of the Sex Offender Registry Board are confidential, but the SJC decision provides a glimpse into Doe’s evaluation. The decision indicates the board felt the rest home was good for Doe and described him as “well liked and well adjusted there.” His advanced age also made him less likely to reoffend, the board said. But Doe presented less well on other factors, including the young age and sex of his victims, the brevity of his time in the community, and his lack of sex offender treatment and counseling.

The board concluded in January 2011 that Doe presented a high risk to reoffend and a high degree of danger. The board acknowledged that “such a finding may in fact lead to a decrease in his support and stability,” but nonetheless found that the facts “warrant broad community notification for the protection of children” and ordered him to register as a Level 3 sex offender.

The Supreme Judicial Court did not rule on Doe’s classification, but held that his removal from the rest home was unconstitutional because it restricted his freedom to live where he wanted without first giving him the opportunity to prove that he was no danger to the other elders at the rest home. “A restriction on the right to choose where one lives is a further imposition on the liberty interests protected by our state constitution,” the court’s decision said.

The SJC decision applied only to Doe’s situation, so nursing and rest homes in Massachusetts continue to deny entrance to Level 3 sex offenders.

The court’s ruling that Doe was entitled to live where he wants suggests the state’s nursing home ban—as well as the municipal ordinances restricting where sex offenders can live—could be subject to broader legal challenge. Research indicates such ordinances do little to promote public safety, since most sex offenders prey on people they know and not strangers.

Despite winning his case, Doe himself did not benefit from the court’s decision. During the court’s deliberations last summer, his health deteriorated and he was moved to a hospital and then a hospice. He died shortly after the decision was handed down, eight months after he was classified as a Level 3 sex offender.

To view CommonWealth’s database, click here.

Level 3 Sex offenders as of February 2012

Meet the Author

Bruce Mohl

Editor, CommonWealth

About Bruce Mohl

Bruce Mohl is the editor of CommonWealth magazine. Bruce came to CommonWealth from the Boston Globe, where he spent nearly 30 years in a wide variety of positions covering business and politics. He covered the Massachusetts State House and served as the Globe’s State House bureau chief in the late 1980s. He also reported for the Globe’s Spotlight Team, winning a Loeb award in 1992 for coverage of conflicts of interest in the state’s pension system. He served as the Globe’s political editor in 1994 and went on to cover consumer issues for the newspaper. At CommonWealth, Bruce helped launch the magazine’s website and has written about a wide range of issues with a special focus on politics, tax policy, energy, and gambling. Bruce is a graduate of Ohio Wesleyan University and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He lives in Dorchester.

About Bruce Mohl

Bruce Mohl is the editor of CommonWealth magazine. Bruce came to CommonWealth from the Boston Globe, where he spent nearly 30 years in a wide variety of positions covering business and politics. He covered the Massachusetts State House and served as the Globe’s State House bureau chief in the late 1980s. He also reported for the Globe’s Spotlight Team, winning a Loeb award in 1992 for coverage of conflicts of interest in the state’s pension system. He served as the Globe’s political editor in 1994 and went on to cover consumer issues for the newspaper. At CommonWealth, Bruce helped launch the magazine’s website and has written about a wide range of issues with a special focus on politics, tax policy, energy, and gambling. Bruce is a graduate of Ohio Wesleyan University and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He lives in Dorchester.

Meet the Author

CommonWealth intern Andrew Farnitano contributed to this report.