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P.G. offender registry for gun crimes not as long as expected

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The Prince George's County Police Department's new gun-offender registry unit is monitoring fewer convicted gun offenders than the number it initially estimated, according to data provided by police.

Nearly six months since the county began requiring people convicted of gun-related offenses to register with the department, 55 people were being monitored as of Jan. 13. Initial estimates, which police officials said were based off the level of gun violence in the county, projected as many as 1,400 convicted offenders could be added to the registry over a three-year period — a number that equates to a rate of about 39 being added to the registry each month.

Following the example of several major metropolitan cities — including the District, New York City, Chicago and Baltimore — Prince George's County lawmakers established a gun-offender registry over the summer as a means to reduce gun violence by allowing police to keep closer watch on those convicted of gun crimes.

"It's working the way we envisioned," said Deputy Chief Craig Howard, head of the department's Bureau of Investigation.

But before making any further predictions about the growth of the registry, officials said they would wait until the department has a full year's worth of data on how the program has worked.

"I wouldn't even begin to say how many handgun arrests we are going to make," Chief Howard said. "As we get close to July, we will have a better picture."

The Baltimore Police Department's gun-offender registry, which county police and lawmakers studied while drafting their own legislation, has topped 1,600 people since it started in 2008. Prince George's County's own registry is not expected to grow to that size because the county has a lower level of gun violence, Chief Howard said.

New York City lawmakers adopted the first gun-offender registry in the nation in 2006, inspiring several other major cities to pass similar laws. Some state lawmakers, including those in Connecticut in 2011, debated the merits of statewide registries, but so far none has been approved. Illinois might be the next state to weigh a similar measure. The Chicago Sun Times reported last month that Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel is preparing a plan to get the state legislature to consider a statewide registry.

The specifics of existing laws — including the length of time that offenders are kept on the registries — vary by jurisdiction but typically require individuals convicted of gun crimes to register with police and provide contact information, to check in periodically with police to update information on file and to charge them with a new criminal offense if they fail to register.

While most gun-offender registries are kept internally by police, Chicago has made its registry publicly searchable online — a feature that was debated but ultimately not included as a component in Prince George's County's registry.

The legality of Baltimore's registry has been called into question as a Circuit Court judge ruled in 2011 that a portion of the law was unconstitutionally vague.

To avoid the issues Baltimore is facing, county officials said they were very specific in defining what their law would require. Under the law, individuals convicted of gun crimes must register with police within 48 hours from the time they are sentenced or, if their sentence involves jail time, when they are released. It also requires offenders to meet police twice a year for up to five years to update the information officers have on file and allows for police to periodically stop by the offenders' homes to verify the information. Failure to comply with the county's law is punishable by a year in jail and a $1,000 fine.

Thus far, most people required to register have been compliant with the law, said Sgt. Tod Nalley, who oversees the Gun Offender Registry Unit.

"We had someone call in today to say their phone number changed," Sgt. Nalley said while speaking about the registry recently.

Of the 55 people added on the registry since July, 22 had fully returned to the community, 14 were on home detention, and police had only one open arrest warrant for an offender who failed to register, officials said. Other convicted offenders were in jail and would be subject to monitoring once they complete their sentences.

Many of those on the county's gun-offender registry are also on probation, Sgt. Nalley said. Critics said the overlap shows a redundancy such registries create within the criminal justice system.

"You have probation officers. This is their job. Now we're saying we'll have police officers do this, too," said Don Kates, a criminologist with the Independent Institute in Oakland, Calif.

Depending on the severity of the crime committed, gun offenders in Prince George's County are required to maintain contact with police for three to five years — lengths of time that can provide "a little more oversight" when they outlast probation sentences, Sgt. Nalley said.

"When you have someone that is a repeat offender, then I don't think you can have too much oversight," said County Council member Karen Toles, who sponsored the registry legislation.

Note: A previous version of this story incorrectly identified Deputy Chief Craig Howard's position within the police department. The mistake has been corrected.

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