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Many in offender registry remain unverified

HELENA — More than two years after an audit that showed nearly a quarter of the sexual and violent offenders were unaccounted for on the state registry things have improved — but the whereabouts for about one in eight are still unverified despite increased focus and campaign promises.

The Associated Press analyzed a copy of the registry database, received in a public records request. It found that about 13 percent of the 5,432 offenders on the registry as of early August were past due with their address verification, compared to 26 percent in June of 2011.

The improvement follows an increased effort first under former Attorney General Steve Bullock, now governor, and current Attorney General Tim Fox to locate the offenders who don't return their mandatory address verification letters.

The issue was a big one for Fox in his successful campaign, where he often bashed the office for a "poorly maintained" registry. Fox said he has made it a priority in office to implement a long list of improvements he promised.

But he has not changed the staffing levels in the unit tasked with helping police locate offenders, and is now generally congratulatory of Bullock for making such changes as hiring two full-time investigators to help local police find offenders.

Fox added permanent funding for the positions in the budget approved earlier this year by lawmakers.

Finding the offenders remains a chore. Some of the worst sex offenders must verify their address every 90 days. Other times, large batches of annual verification letters for other types of offenders are mailed that can create a large spike in late returns, the Department of Justice said.

Critics of the results found in that 2011 audit, including Fox, argued the agency was failing in its duty to make sure the public could rely on the registry. Fox said he is finding that it will take constant work to locate offenders, although he doesn't have a specific goal for the percent of unverified addresses.

"The target is always zero. But as a practical matter we can't ever get to zero," Fox said. "From my point of view, we should keep it as low as we possibly can. That is what we try to do."

The number can bounce around.

Last November, the DOJ under Bullock released a memo saying that the office had reduced the number of non-compliant sex offenders to 4.2 percent, a figure that did not include the more numerous violent offenders.

A snapshot of the database given to the AP in early August showed 7.4 percent of sex offenders with unverified addresses. Two weeks later, the agency said the figure stood at about 6 percent.

The figure does not include more than 100 offenders listed simply as "transient," often with no known address. The agency said it is possible for such offenders to update local police with their general whereabouts.

The registry was improved in several ways since that original adult, such as to publicly flag offenders who are non-compliant and have not returned an address verification letter.

Fox has made several more changes. And he said a new registry website that could be unveiled next month will be able to accommodate many of the plans he discussed on the campaign trail.

He plans to have a feature where people can sign up for email updates any time an offender moves into their community. A mobile app is on the way, too, he said.

"That is the next step. It is a little more involved, and there is a cost associated to it," Fox said. "The goal there is to better inform our citizens so they can protect themselves."

He also ushered into law tougher legislation, such as requiring offenders who move to the state to submit a DNA sample. And offenders are now required to notify police if they are going to be away from their residence for more than 10 days.

Fox said his office continues to build relationships with local police, the ones who are ultimately responsible for locating absconders.

"It was a priority on my campaign, and I am making it a priority in my term as attorney general," Fox said.

Fox said the office is also working with new authority to assign tier levels to many older offenders who were never assigned a risk factor for potential re-offense.

Fox said he is still looking for ways to build a campaign promises for a registry public awareness campaign with business, and to post the email addresses, instant messenger names and social networking handles for each offender.

Bullock, now governor, predicted it will remain a challenge to keep track of offenders who often live transient lives.

"All Montanans want and expect timely and up to date information on the registry," Bullock said. "And with the populations that are on the registry that is a continuing challenge that local law enforcement works on in conjunction with the state."


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