MAHOPAC, N.Y.— More than a dozen local lawmakers and law enforcers gathered at Yorktown Town Hall last week at a roundtable organized by state Sen. Terrence Murphy in an effort to update and strengthen legislation that will keep communities safe from sexual predators. Currently, he said, there are more than 1,200 registered sex offenders living in Dutchess, Putnam and Westchester counties.
Capt. William McNamara of the Putnam County Sheriff’s Department said one of the biggest issues with Megan’s Law, a 1996 law that requires convicted sex offenders Level 2 or above to register with the state, is that it is too slow in notifying communities about out-of-state sex offenders who move to New York.
Recently, he said, a convicted sex offender moved from Florida to Putnam Valley. Though his office was notified by the offender almost immediately, he and his officers were prohibited from notifying anyone else in the community, including direct neighbors. This is because when a sex offender moves to New York, they are considered a Level 1 offender until a state review board determines otherwise. The process of identifying the offender’s risk level in New York can sometimes take months, McNamara said.
Once the offender notifies law enforcement, that agency must then notify New York State, who then notifies the Board of Examiners of Sex Offenders. The board, tasked with identifying the offender’s risk level, reaches out to the offender’s former state, which then has 30 to 60 days to make a recommendation on the offender’s risk level in New York. Once the board makes a ruling, the offender has the opportunity to appeal.
“While this is going on, we’re talking weeks or months for this to happen,” McNamara said.
In his example, McNamara said, the members of the community find out through word of mouth before his department was able to notify them.
“They call us up and say, Sherriff, don’t you care about us over here?” he said.
Murphy thanked McNamara for the information and said he will look to streamline this process in new or updated legislation.
Assemblyman Kevin Byrne said any new legislation must address challenges presented by social media, which was virtually nonexistent when current state laws were passed. While laws require sex offenders to register their email addresses, they are not required to register social media accounts.
“We see new challenges in this in how people can attract new victims,” Byrne said. “I think it’s very important that we do update the law, which is why we’re here.”
Yorktown Police Chief Robert Noble suggested that all convicted sex offenders be required to identify themselves on their social media profiles of their sex offender status. He said probation or parole officers routinely confirm the residence of offenders, but wondered if their social media presence is being as closely monitored. If they fail to identify themselves online, Noble said, it should be a felony offense.
“Get these sex offenders back in jail where they belong,” Noble said.
Carmel Supervisor Ken Schmitt agreed that changes need to be made to the sex offender registry law. He cited a recent example in Mahopac, where an offender moved back home, next door to his victims, years after sexually abusing them.
Chana Krauss, first assistant district attorney with the Putnam County District Attorney’s Office, said the case Schmitt referred to provided unusual challenges. The offender, whose victims were two young girls, lived in various motels upon his release from prison. After getting “bumped around” for a few years, he wound up living out of his car in the CVS on Route 6 in Mahopac. This, she said, made it difficult to track his whereabouts and was a “dangerous situation.”
“It’s horrible to think that a convicted sex offender is going to return to his home and live anywhere near his victim, but then we have to come up with a better plan,” Krauss said.
Krauss said that the most difficult part of tracking convicted sex offenders is the lack of resources. For example, she said, one detective in the Putnam County Sheriff’s Department recently flew to Texas to interview someone in a sexual assault case. At the same time, he is also working a string of burglaries.
“I know if we could add a couple more members to the Putnam County Sherriff’s Office, that would help a lot,” she said.
Yorktown Supervisor Michael Grace said this is something that can be done without the state’s intervention. Several years ago, he noted, the Yorktown Town Board added one new officer to its police force and dedicated that officer solely to narcotics. The officer, rather than being a department of one, works with Westchester County Public Safety, which pools together resources and officers from several other municipalities.
“It’s a very similar type of issue [to narcotics] because of the recidivism [of sex offenders],” Grace said.
Grace said he would meet with town leaders from other communities, such as Somers, Carmel and Peekskill, about forming such a task force.
“If our particular resources are inadequate or watered down, we could actually combine those resources,” Grace said. “That’s a conversation that we should have and have very soon.”
Grace said the Yorktown Town Board would put its money where its mouth is.
“I guarantee our board will be more than willing to ante up something toward a joint task force,” he said.
Somers Supervisor Rick Morrissey said he would be willing to have the conversation, referring to sex offenders living in his community as “ticking time bombs.”
“I’d be all for monitoring them closely because we know a good percentage of them are going to repeat somehow,” Morrissey said. “I don’t want them repeating offenses in our community.”
County Legislator Francis Corcoran said no matter the resources or legislation, it will always be difficult to stop someone who wants to commit a crime. However, he said, if the act of luring a victim is a felony crime itself, offenders may think twice before setting up fake social media accounts.
Attorneys present said proving intent is difficult in a criminal case.
While some at the meeting opted for more extreme measures, such as banning all offenders from using the internet, attorneys also said that would be a Constitutional issue and would also be difficult to enforce.
Liz Talbert, coalition coordinator for the Alliance for Safe Kids, a Yorktown-based organization dedicated to promoting awareness and prevention for destructive behaviors to teens, said, ultimately, it is parents who are most able to keep children safe by monitoring their internet usage. She said parents are “hungry” for information and recommended launching a D.A.R.E.-like program on sexual abuse in schools, as early as elementary school.
Murphy thanked the participants for a lively discussion, which, he said, will shape any legislation he proposes.
“This is the reason why we’re here; to tighten up these laws and to make sure we know where they (sexual offenders) are,” Murphy said. “To me, a lot of this is common sense.”