HELENA — The addresses for one out of every four offenders in Montana's sexual and violent offender registry are unverified and possibly unreliable, casting doubt on the credibility of the registry used by everyone from concerned parents checking out new neighbors to house hunters in search of a safe neighborhood.
A new audit found that 26 percent of the offenders in the state's database have not returned a required address verification letter even though not doing so puts them at risk of going back to prison. The report found that the state never notified members of the public or local police checking the list that many of the addresses are not verified.
The state points out that an unverified address does not necessarily mean the offender has moved elsewhere and could be a threat to unsuspecting neighbors. The Montana Department of Justice, which tracks roughly 5,000 offenders in the state, said some have simply failed to return the address verification letter required by law.
In nearly a third of the cases the offenders are back in jail and the managers of the database were never notified. And the auditors found seven cases where dead offenders were still listed as active in the registry.
"When members of the public access the Web site or law enforcement queries data, thy will not be aware of the offender's failure to verify their registration," the auditors wrote in a new report. "Therefore, they may not be aware of the offender's actual location."
But in many instances, the legislative audit revealed, authorities aren't sure where the offenders are living.
The Department of Justice said that it is making some changes.
The agency plans to flag unverified offenders so those looking at the Web site are aware of the situation. Additionally, it plans to send local police frequent reports on unverified offenders so officers can check on unverified offenders, and track them down in need be.
Auditors reported that agency managers initially resisted flagging unverified offenders because it "would lead the public and law enforcement to question the data in the registry since such a large number have not verified their registration."
Mike Batista, a Department of Justice administrator, said the improvements will be made. But overall, he said "by and large" the public can rely on the website that provides a map of offender locations.
"I think they can rely on a lot of the information," Batista said. "It's a challenging program in terms of being able to constantly know on any given day where an offender resides."