September 22, 2005

Sex Offenders Who Fled Katrina are Tough to Track

BOSTON -- As many as 4,500 sex offenders are among tens of thousands of people evacuated by Hurricane Katrina, prison officials say, worsening what critics call an already patchy national database on sexual crimes.

Louisiana State Police say 3,300 to 4,500 sex offenders lived in areas swamped by Katrina. Of those, about 270 usually check in at parole offices in five districts shut by Katrina and are considered at higher risk of repeating their crimes.

From Texas to Massachusetts, authorities have struggled to identify sex offenders among evacuees -- with varying success. And Hurricane Rita, steaming through the Gulf of Mexico toward the Texas coast and western Louisiana, makes that task harder by delaying the reopening of New Orleans.

"You have all these offenders in that area who could be anywhere," said Laura Ahearn, head of Parents for Megan's Law, a New York-based child advocacy group. "There is no mechanism in place for them to be registering as they should be."

To track them down, Louisiana's corrections officials are visiting shelters and telephoning relatives of sex offenders. But they said many sex offenders evacuated after the storm are failing to check in with police or may have left Louisiana.

"Those 270 are who we are really trying to track at this point," said Pam Laborde, a Louisiana corrections officer.

The United States has strengthened laws to keep track of sex offenders in the past decade. All but two states publish names and addresses of people convicted of sexual crimes on the Internet. Failure to register is a crime in most states.

But still many do not register, use false addresses or register then move without notifying anyone, said Scott Berkowitz, president of the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network, America's largest anti-sexual assault organization.

"There are a whole lot of missing sex offenders," he said. "Katrina would have greatly exacerbated the problem."

According to a survey by Ahearn's group, about 24 percent of sex offenders in 2003 who should have been registered with local police were unaccounted for, or about 77,700 individuals. "That could be significantly higher after Katrina," she said.


States with large evacuee populations such as Texas are still identifying sex offenders and the risk they pose.

Authorities say that will take time.

"Louisiana, Alabama and Mississippi -- all three -- are trying to get a handle on which offenders they don't have and where they might be," said Tela Mange, a spokeswoman for the Texas Department of Public Safety.

"Some are registering themselves, but we really do not have a sense of numbers yet," she said.

The task is toughest in Texas, home to a quarter-million Katrina refugees. "A number of different agencies are working closely together on this," said Mike Viesca, spokesman for the Texas Department of Criminal Justice.

In Massachusetts, some residents and evacuees expressed concern when seven sex offenders were identified among the 209 evacuees flown to Camp Edwards on Cape Cod after Katrina. One was arrested and charged with rape after a check revealed an outstanding warrant.

The remaining six were isolated on a floor in a men's dormitory but can move freely inside and outside the camp.

But authorities cite an equally important challenge: protection of the rights of those who have paid for their crimes and are responding to treatment or forging normal lives in fear of being stigmatized.

"There are generally more offenders living in communities than most people realize," said Katie Ford, a spokeswoman for Massachusetts's public safety office.