By Ryan Tracy The Times, Trenton
Visitors to the website can check to see if convicted sex offenders have registered at an address near their homes. Type in a zip code, click on an offender’s name, and a photo of the perpetrator pops up on the computer screen.
But when Dixon, a Hamilton resident and mother of two, checked the online registry last month, she was “shocked” at what she saw:
A convicted sex offender was listed as living at her own address on Krueger Lane.
“We have no idea how long (the offender’s picture) has been on there,” said Dixon, who insisted her family has no connection to the offender.
“We have a family that moved right next door a couple months ago. (The neighbors) might think it’s a family member or somebody,” she said.
Dixon contacted the Mercer County Prosecutor’s Office, one of several authorities responsible for keeping tabs on sex offenders, on Feb. 9. The office acknowledged the information on the state registry was inaccurate. Days later, Dixon was satisfied that the problem had been corrected.
Yet her experience raises questions about the reliability of the online registry, which is a product of work performed at local, county, and state law enforcement agencies.
Under Megan’s Law, which was enacted after 7-year-old Megan Kanka was raped and killed in 1994 by a convicted sex offender living near her Hamilton home, sex offenders must register with police after leaving prison. Offenders deemed to be particularly dangerous are listed on a statewide website as a form of community notification.
Dixon claims she first saw a photo of John Newman, who was convicted in Mercer County in 2003 of aggravated sexual assault, about three years ago when her family first moved into the home on Krueger Lane.
“A few weeks after we bought the house, my husband went on our website to check if there is any sex offenders in the area, and it turned out it said it was our own house,” she said, referring to the registry on the New Jersey State Police website.
The registry provided a mug shot of Newman, who had a “dirty blonde” head of hair and “facial hair” like her husband, Dixon said.
“If you saw my husband up close, you would know it’s not him. But from far away” the distinction might be less clear, said Dixon, who also has a 3-year-old daughter and a 5-year-old son.
After some back-and-forth with the county prosecutor’s office and the state police, Dixon said she was satisfied three years ago that the information was corrected.
Yet last month, after reading a story in The Times about Megan’s Law, Dixon decided to check the New Jersey registry again. There was Newman’s photo, with Dixon’s address once again listed.
How exactly that mistake occurred remained unclear last week.
According to Megan’s Law guidelines drafted by the state Attorney General’s office, Newman would have been required to verify an address with the Hamilton police department upon moving into the township.
He would also be required to check in annually and notify the department if he moved to a different location. Offenders who fail to verify an address or provide false information can be convicted of a third-degree crime.
After verifying Newman’s information, Hamilton would forward it to the Mercer County Prosecutor’s Office, which is responsible for dividing offenders into tiers based on the likelihood that each will commit another sex crime.
If an offender is considered risky enough to be placed on New Jersey’s online registry, the county prosecutor’s office would forward his or her information to the state police’s bureau of identification, which is responsible for maintaining and updating the website.
Casey DeBlasio, spokeswoman for the Mercer County Prosecutor’s Office, said the county was aware Newman had relocated to Florida as of March 2006, thanks to notification from authorities in that state.
Though there was apparently a delay in updating the website at that time, Dixon said she was satisfied in 2006 that the information online had been corrected.
Sometime thereafter, Newman’s photo was posted again next to Dixon’s address.
“When Ms Dixon contacted our office in February, an employee checked the state police website and saw that this offender was still listed” at Dixon’s address, DeBlasio said. “We contacted the state police regarding the address change because we knew (Newman) was in Florida.”
Lt. John O’Brien, assistant chief of the state police’s identification bureau, said the state police changed the website after receiving confirmation from the county prosecutor’s office on Feb. 15 that Newman had relocated to Florida.
O’Brien said Newman was apparently still “registered as residing (at Dixon’s Kruger Lane address) until we changed the database” last month.
DeBlasio added that the documentation regarding Newman’s Florida address did not include an original fingerprint card from that state. New Jersey’s state police usually require that document before changing the registry, DeBlasio said.
“At that time (last month, the state police) were willing to make an exception and they accepted a copy of the last (fingerprint) card that we had in our possession,” which was a card created in 2005 by the Hamilton police, she said.
In the past, proponents of sex offender registries created under Megan’s Law have fought criticism about their effectiveness.
For Debrorah Jackson, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey, Dixon’s story provided proof that the lists “are not a reliable way to prevent sex crimes
“Registries give parents the impression that sex offenders are nefarious strangers in grainy pictures, but studies have shown that the vast majority of sex offenders are the people we least suspect — people who are members or friends of the family,” Jackson said in an e-mailed statement.
“The lists are often inaccurate and out-of-date,” she said. “Parents need to be ever vigilant about their children’s safety, whether they’re walking home from school or staying at a friend’s house, not relying on inaccurate lists.”
Kanka’s parents, backed by lawmakers and other supporters, argue that the sex offender registry is not meant to prevent sex crimes. They say parents have a right to know when a high-risk offender lives nearby.
“As far as I know, doctors have not come up with a cure for treating sex offenders,” Maureen Kanka, Megan’s mother, wrote in a recent op-ed in The Times. “Until I know that pedophiles pose no risk to the children of New Jersey and any other state in our country, I am grateful for the awareness that Megan’s Law provides.”
The state’s online sex offender registry, which Maureen Kanka said has received more than five million visitors since its inception, does provide a disclaimer about the accuracy of its information.
“Although efforts have been made to ensure the information is as accurate as possible, no guarantee is made or implied,” reads part of a statement on the site’s front page.
For Dixon, however, the potential flaws in the registry system hit home.
“How effective is the website if you don’t know the information is actually the truth that’s on there?” she asked.
Contact Ryan Tracy at (609) 989-5723 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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