- Associated Press - Monday, March 20, 2017

MONTPELIER, Vt. (AP) - Vermont families are unable to find out whether a high-risk sex offender lives in their neighborhood, years after the public sex offender registry was directed to include those details.

Members of the public can view photos, names and towns of residence for people on the online registry, but not to the level of street addresses.

Sex offender registries in other states, including New Hampshire and New York, include offenders’ last known street addresses.

Vermont lawmakers requested that the online sex offender registry include street addresses for high-risk or non-compliant offenders in a 2009 law, and again in 2015. The Vermont Department of Public Safety was told to ensure that the data were free of errors and that the registry had fixed problems identified by the State Auditor’s Office before they were allowed to post addresses.

After more than eight years of discussion, the online Vermont Sex Offender Registry still lacks detailed information about where high-risk offenders live. The state has not been able to ensure the street addresses are accurate enough to share with the public.

“You have to go and you have to knock on a door and you have to verify that an address that is given to the department, that a person is actually living there,” said Scott Waterman, a spokesman for the Department of Public Safety, adding later, “Doing that for all who are on the registry would be a full time job, and no one does that full time.”

An online tutorial for the registry encourages members of the public to “use address searches to map out bike rides, walks, and other activities in unfamiliar areas,” even though such a search is impossible.

“Be sure to frequently run address searches on places such as your home, your children’s schools, and local playgrounds,” advises the Vermont Sex Offender Registry tutorial.

Jeffrey Wallin, head of the Vermont Crime Information Center that runs the registry, said in an email that he was working to change the language in the tutorial, which was written by a state vendor and is not applicable for Vermont. He also said that state officials have improved their data and communications systems regarding sex offenders in the registry.

Lawmakers who worked to improve the public sex offender registry in the past said they understand the challenge of ensuring accurate information before anything is shared with the public.

“It’s a taller order than we had anticipated,” said Sen. Peg Flory, R-Rutland, who sponsored the 2015 bill allowing street addresses to be posted. She continues to support greater information being shared with the public but is not sure about the use of resources to ensure accuracy. “It would be nice, but I really would have to stop and think whether the benefit it would produce would be worth the cost.”

Sen. Alice Nitka, D-Windsor, is concerned that posting inaccurate addresses could lead to harassment or even violence against innocent people.

“The big problem is the wrong address puts people in terrible danger,” Nitka said. She said people in a local community are typically aware of people who may pose a danger to public safety, and she is satisfied with posting only offenders’ town of residence online.

Karen Tronsgard-Scott, executive director of the Vermont Network Against Domestic and Sexual Violence, would rather Vermont not have an online sex offender registry at all, because she says the money could be used for better purposes.

“There is huge public desire for a sex offender registry, but it’s a false solution,” Tronsgard-Scott said in a telephone interview. Tronsgard-Scott said that there is no evidence that sex offender registries make communities safer.

Tronsgard-Scott added that posting people’s addresses would only make them “social pariahs” in a community when they may need treatment and support.

“Think of how much money we’re spending on a sex offender registry,” she said. “And we’re not doing it well.”

Waterman, the spokesman for the Department of Public Safety, was unable to provide an estimate of costs for the sex offender registry because there is no dedicated line item for the registry in the department budget. Tronsgard-Scott said state money is better spent on treatment for sex offenders, which is proven to be effective.

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Information from: The Burlington Free Press, https://www.burlingtonfreepress.com

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