Top Baker aide offers sex offender fixes

Public safety chief says board did not 'lose' 1,769 offenders

STATE HOUSE NEWS SERVICE

IN RESPONSE TO A CRITICAL AUDIT, the state’s top public safety official on Tuesday outlined changes that could be made at the agency tasked with monitoring sex offenders, including the fingerprinting of Level 1 offenders.

Public Safety and Security Secretary Daniel Bennett testified at an oversight hearing called after a state audit revealed the Sex Offender Registry Board lacked addresses for 1,769 offenders.

Bennett told the Legislature’s Public Safety and Homeland Security Committee that the board is not an investigative agency and said police officers are the ones tasked with locating offenders who fail to register. He disputed the characterization that the board had “lost” the offenders it did not have addresses for, comparing it to saying the Supreme Judicial Court chief justice had lost everyone who failed to appear in court.

“I am so grateful that the auditor’s office did this report. We are going to be in a much better place for it,” Bennett said. “However, it shouldn’t confuse what the sex offender registry does. We are not out there looking for sex offenders. We should be sharing information — thank goodness they pointed out some other places where we should get it from — but the police should be investigating, and it’s a good thing because there’s 25,000 of them, and they get the warrants and they stop the cars and they find the sex offenders and they testify in court, and they put these rotten people who hurt children and other people in prison. And that’s how the system works.”

Bennett said he was “not burden-shifting” by pointing out that police are the ones who can get warrants for sex offenders, because he is also responsible for the Massachusetts State Police.

Released in September, the audit also found that between July 1, 2015 and June 30, 2016, the Sex Offender Registry Board failed to classify 936 sex offenders, including 143 convicted of rape, 129 for rape of a child by force, 144 for indecent assault on a child, and 237 for indecent assault on a person over age 14.

Auditor Suzanne Bump outlined her office’s findings at the hearing and called for a culture change at the board, suggesting it should move away from a “passive” mindset focused on “managing and processing information that comes to them” to an active one “in which they seek out information about those who are out of compliance, innovate to overcome challenges they face, and take advantage of the tools and resources at their disposal to ensure they meet their mission.”

“This is not the Registry of Motor Vehicles, and you are dealing with a population that may not want to come forward and be compliant,” Bump said.

Bump called on the board to develop policies to ensure that offenders are properly classified before they are released from jail or prison, and to make better use of its ability to share other agencies’ data.

In response to Bump’s testimony, Rep. David Vieira said that while the onus is on individuals to register with the board, it is the state’s responsibility to make sure they fulfill that obligation.

“I think we should look at expanding ways, not only with the [Registry of Motor Vehicles] to not issue licenses as we do, not only with [the Department of Transitional Assistance] to not give public benefits as we do, but we should look at the potential ability to seize all assets, shut all bank accounts down, no debit cards work, no ability to transact any business until you show up and tell us where you are,” Vieira, a Falmouth Republican, said.

Bennett floated other potential changes legislators could make.

Information about Level 1 sex offenders — those deemed to have the lowest risk of reoffending — is not made available to the public under state law. Giving the example of a parent of three children seeking information about someone moving into their home, Bennett suggested the Legislature could authorize the board to confirm if someone is a Level 1 offender in response to a direct request.

Bennett said he also thought there could be a “real benefit” to having Level 1 sex offenders register in-person in police departments and have their fingerprints taken, rather than the current system that allows them register and provide notice of relocation by mail. Level 2 and Level 3 offenders already have their fingerprints and photos taken by their local police departments.

“Fingerprints are the best identification you have,” Bennett said. “It’s actually better than DNA. You get fingerprints into the [Criminal Justice Information Services] system, and we might be able to solve a lot of crimes, particularly if they’re sex offenders,” Bennett said.

A pilot program that began in 2015 in Suffolk County could also be expanded by the Legislature, Bennett said. Under the pilot, law enforcement agencies in Boston conducted 1,222 address audits of sex offenders, resulting in 79 warrants, eight summonses for failure to comply with the registry law, and 72 arrests, according to the Executive Office of Public Safety and Security.

Agencies participating in the voluntary pilot would designate officers to sex offender registry-related duties, including regular address verification audits.

Rep. Paul Tucker, a former Salem police chief, asked Bennett if he would like to see a State Police unit or another type of law enforcement task force attached to the board that could issue warrants and seek out offenders who could not be located.

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Bennett said no, saying he thought local police and state troopers in a specialized unit are best positioned for that type of work. But he said he did not “think it would be a bad idea” to talk with the heads of the State Police about potentially expanding the number of troopers “out there looking for sex offenders.”

“I think that as our new class comes out of the Massachusetts State Police, it’s something we really should consider having an assigned group of Massachusetts State Police going out to look for the sex offenders,” Bennett told reporters. “But you don’t try to create an agency that’s not supposed to be investigating for sex offenders and all of a sudden stick a wing on it.”