The Communities with the Most Sex Offenders
Thursday, November 10, 2011
Overall, there are just over 800 sex offenders on parole or probation living in Rhode Island. Several communities have far more sex offenders than others—and not just because they are larger or more urban. Woonsocket tops the list as the place with the highest proportion—a ratio of about 10 offenders for every 5,000 residents. Next are West Warwick and Exeter, each with ratios of seven offenders. (See below chart for the complete listing of all communities.)
The average ratio for an Ocean State community is 2.9 offenders for every 5,000 people.
Only three communities did not have any sex offenders on parole or probation: Block Island, Foster, and Jamestown.
Why do some communities have more?
For the most part, ex-inmates return to the city or town they called home before they went to prison, according to Tracey Zeckhausen, spokeswoman for the Department of Corrections. But some areas, such as the state’s main cities, may have more offenders than others because of cheaper rents, public transportation, and the locations of homeless shelters, Zeckhausen said. She also pointed to the connection between unstable family lives, poor education, unemployment and the higher number of convicts that cities might have.
But how did Woonsocket and West Warwick—mid-sized cities by Rhode Island standards—beat out the likes of Central Falls or Providence?
West Warwick has 46 sex offenders on parole or probation, according to the DOC data. But the total number of registered sex offenders in town is actually nearly double that, according to Amaral. (A spokesman for the Woonsocket Police Department did not respond to calls for comment.)
Communities not always notified of sex offenders
A patchwork of laws and rules governs when sex offenders have to register with local police and when their neighbors are put on notice. A person who has been convicted of first-degree child molestation has to register with the local police department for his whole life. Someone who was found with child porn, on the other hand, only has to register for a ten-year period, according to Amaral.
The law, as it now stands, mandates community notification for Level II and Level III offenders, but not Level I offenders—no matter how severe the crime, according to Amaral.
Everyone who lives within a half-mile radius is notified when a Level III offender moves in. The notification is less comprehensive for Level II offenders: only those households with schoolchildren are notified.
Current system plagued by loopholes
Rhode Island law is currently out of compliance with federal law on sex offender registration and community notification, according to Paula Kocan, supervisor of the Sex Offender Community Notification Unit of the state Parole Board.
That has at least one state rep especially worried. Peter Palumbo, D-Cranston, has twice tried to pass legislation that would bring Rhode Island in line with federal law, known as the Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act of 2006. Palumbo warns that the current system has too many loopholes that remain open because his bill has yet to become law.
Currently, the Sex Offender Board of Review has to determine the chances that someone will repeat their crime—a process that Palumbo describes as “absolutely subjective.” Plus, the sheer volume of work that entails has caused a backlog of offenders awaiting classification, delaying community notification for Level II or III offenders, Palumbo said.
After all that, an offender can appeal their classification in the courts. Local police must hold off on issuing any community notices until the appeal process—which can last up to a year, or longer—is over. “While they’re appealing this, they’re running around preying on kids,” Palumbo said. “That’s a major problem.”
As of March 2011, there were 100 sex offenders whose appeals of their classifications were pending, according to information provided by Palumbo.
And that might not even be the largest loophole. Anyone who committed a sex offense before July 24, 1996 is not subject to the state law on community notification, according to Kocan. Under the legislation Palumbo proposed, notification rules would be retroactively extended to those offenders.
Palumbo says he can’t understand why anyone, at least any of his colleagues at the Statehouse, would oppose closing those loopholes—especially when Rhode Island could risk losing federal funding as a consequence. Palumbo said federal authorities have warned that failure to update the state law could result in a punitive, 10-percent cut in Byrne grants, which fund local and state law enforcement programs. That could cost Rhode Island $150,000 to $650,000 annually, according to Palumbo.
‘Frightening for the kids’
His bill passed the House in 2010 but not the Senate. This year it did not even make it out of the House Judiciary Committee. “We’ve got super, super liberals running that committee, so we’re going backwards, instead of forward,” Palumbo said. He plans to re-introduce his bill next year, but is not too optimistic that it will go anywhere without a change in leadership of the committee. “It’s frightening. It’s frightening for the kids.”
State rep: signs should warn neighbors
One state rep wants to go even farther than Palumbo’s bill in making sure neighbors are aware of sex offenders living close by. Lisa Baldelli-Hunt, D-Woonsocket, this year proposed a law that would allow local police to place signs on public sidewalks or streets in front of the homes of sex offenders.
The bill, which was co-sponsored by all the reps from Woonsocket, also did not make it out of the Judiciary Committee. Like Palumbo, Baldelli-Hunt plans on trying again next year.
“I have some concerns regarding sex offenders because, quite frankly, they don’t walk around with signs telling people they are sex offenders,” Baldelli-Hunt told GoLocalProv. “I’m not interested in their rights or protecting them. I have no concern for them because they are the worst of the worst.”
She hopes that such a law—a form of public shaming—would goad sex offenders into moving into communities in other states. “It’s not our responsibility to be concerned with how other states handle their sex offenders,” Baldelli-Hunt said.
In addition to community notices issued by local law enforcement, the state maintains a centralized, online database of where sex offenders live. The state site allows someone to pull up a list of sex offenders either for an entire city or town, or by zip code. Each name is listed with an address, the crime committed, and the prison-release status of the offender. (Click here to access the site.)
But Baldelli-Hunt worries that some people, like the elderly, may not have easy access to the Internet. And, for those that do, it may not occur to them that they should be checking up on whether sex offenders are in their neighborhoods. “Everyone’s very busy and probably that’s not on your to-do list,” she said.
Posting signs outside their homes, she says, ensures that everyone is aware of their presence.
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