ALBANY — More than 1,100 names have fallen off the state's sex offender registry this year, raising concerns among lawmakers and victims advocates that public safety is being jeopardized.
The names belong to low-level sex offenders who are only required to stay registered for 20 years.
The Sex Offender Registration Act went into effect a little more than 20 years ago, on Jan. 21, 1996.
Lawmakers debated lengthening the requirement for those offenders to 30 years, as part of a bill that also would clamp new limits on places where sex offenders may live.
But a proposal that sailed through the State Senate — with just five opposed — was bottled up in an Assembly committee.
It has since become a front-burner issue for outnumbered Assembly Republicans, whose leader, Assemblyman Brian Kolb (R-Canandaigua), said a low-level assessment doesn't always reflect the severity of the underlying crime.
"This is an area where we cannot afford any loopholes," he said.
But at least one senator who voted against the bill, Sen. Gustavo Rivera (D-Bronx), said it would be unfair to hit offenders who "are not predators" with the same restrictions placed on more dangerous individuals.
"A Level 1 offender could be someone who on a prank grabbed a woman's breast on public transportation," he said. "While that's obviously stupid, it's not something that should take away your right to live somewhere or work somewhere for the rest of your life."
New York's sex offender registry includes 39,151 names. Of those, 14,575 are marked as Level 1 offenders.
The 14,117 offenders classified as Level 2 — and the 9,685 listed at the highest tier, Level 3 — are required to stay registered for life.
As a result, they must update their home and work addresses with local police whenever they move.
The other 774 people on the list await assessments that are set by judges at the time of sentencing and can vary for people convicted of the same crime.
Judges weigh factors such as whether crimes involved force, weapons and drugs; if the victim was injured; and the victim's age.
Advocates say dropping Level 1 offenders off the list — the registry has shed 1,159 so far this year — means employers and others trying to find information about those people won't learn about their sex crimes.
Being dropped from the registry does not expunge someone's record, but the state only shares criminal histories with limited types of employers, such as nursing homes and school districts.
"What's most frightening is that a youth athletic league checking out applicants for coaching positions or a mall hiring for an Easter Bunny could end up taking on someone who is a convicted sex offender," said Laura Ahearn, director of Parents for Megan's Law and the Crime Victims Center, based in Ronkonkoma, Long Island.
Some Level 1 offenders committed rape and molested children, she said, and their status was negotiated as part of a plea deal when the registry was first structured.
Not all criminal justice experts agree with the thirst for stronger limits on sex offenders who have served their time.
"By making life difficult we actually increase — rather than decrease — the likelihood that they will commit another sex crime," said Cynthia Calkins, a Buffalo-area native and psychology professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City.
Calkins said 95 percent of sex crimes in New York are committed by people not listed on registries.
She questioned the motive of "feel good" legislation that won't lead to better public protection.
"If we were serious about lowering rates of sexual violence, we ought to focus on developing strategies that might work, like efforts that promote safety in the child's own home, the place where abuse most often occurs," she said.
Terence Kindlon, a veteran criminal defense lawyer, said assessments of sex offenders have improved since the process began 20 years ago. Tightening limits on low-level sex offenders would be "draconian," he added.
"There comes a time when the state just has to step away," said Kindlon, recently named Albany County's public defender.
The risk process has slowly become more flexible, "like a new shoe you're breaking in," he said, as court rulings have addressed concerns raised by prosecutors and defense lawyers.
For example, he said, the statute already allows for those assessed as low-level offenders to be kept on the registry for life if their original crime was violent.
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New York and other states created sex offender registries after the highly publicized murder of 7-year-old Megan Kanka in New Jersey in 1994. Her attacker was a convicted sex offender who lived across the street and lured her with the promise of showing her a puppy.
Justin Mason, spokesman for the State Division of Criminal Justice Services, said sex offenders removed from the list "have met their statutory requirement to register for 20 years."
In each case, he said, the division has alerted the district attorney's office that prosecuted the case and the police agency where the offender lives.
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