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For first time, low-level sex offenders are aging off New York’s registry

Mark’s pornography addiction degenerated into viewing child porn. He was discovered, arrested, convicted and incarcerated.

Then he was released from a federal prison two years ago.

But wherever he goes, his crime follows him, because he is on New York State’s Sex Offender Registry.

Police notified the Sweet Home School District, and a parent he works with recognized his name and told their employer.

He won’t be off the list for another 18 years.

But for 72 other registered sex offenders in Erie and Niagara counties, that day has already arrived or soon will. The state’s Sex Offender Registration Act requires that sex offenders like Mark, considered the least likely to commit another crime, be removed from the registry after 20 years. Higher-level offenders remain on the list forever.

So for the first time since the law began in January 1996, some individuals often viewed as untouchables are getting back some of their privacy.

“Twenty years is a long time,” said Mark, a Level 1 offender who asked that his name be changed to protect his loved ones. “I still have 18 years. Obviously I don’t think it should be that long of a wait. I don’t consider myself a threat to society.”

The purpose of the registry, part of Megan’s Law, was prompted by the rape and murder of a 7-year-old New Jersey girl, Megan Kanka, who was attacked by a neighbor with a history of sex crimes. The law was intended to help police keep track of offenders and inform residents if offenders are living in their neighborhoods.

Now that the first of the offenders are being removed from the list, you might ask: Should the public be concerned?

Risk of re-offending

Nearly 40,000 names are on the registered sex offender list in New York State, and 1,359 will be removed from the list this year. Their names no longer will be released to the public, nor will they have to report annually to their local police station. And if they move to a new residence, they will not be required to inform police of their address change.

In Erie County, 49 of the current 585 Level 1 offenders will be taken off the registry this year. The county also has 469 Level 2 offenders and 313 Level 3 offenders.

In Niagara County, 23 of the 215 Level 1 offenders will be removed from the registry. There are also 188 Level 2 and 110 Level 3 offenders in Niagara County.

“There is a point in science when a person’s risk of sexually offending diminishes. However, when people hear about others re-offending, it is hard to accept that principle,” said David G. Heffler, a nationally certified sex offender treatment provider who works with many of the region’s sex offenders.

Level 1 offenders are considered to be the least dangerous and most unlikely to commit future sex crimes. Their risk level is not determined solely by the crimes they were convicted of, but rather whether force or a weapon was involved, if alcohol or drugs played a role, the age of the victim and the number of victims.

Offenders at greater risk of re-offending – those with multiple victims or incidents of child molestations – are classified as either Level 2 or Level 3. They remain on the public registry for life. Judges determine these classifications at hearings following convictions.

Yet there is still concern that names are coming off the registry.

“I know on our list of Level 1s, there are some I am more concerned about recommitting crimes than others,” Cheektowaga Detective Lt. Ken Rusin said. “My opinion comes from interviews with them and reports I’ve received about their activities and from their original crimes. We definitely keep a closer eye on some Level 1s than other Level 1s, but we’re also watching the Level 2s and Level 3s.”

Others say listing the names of any individual convicted of a sex crime on the registry is an asset in protecting children.

“I think the more information the public has, the better,” said Judith G. Olin, director of the Child Advocacy Center, a program at Child & Adolescent Treatment Services. “In 90 percent of child sexual abuse cases, the offender is known to the family. However, it’s possible that maybe a seemingly friendly neighbor or relative may be a sex offender and a family may not know it.”

Level 1 perspective

Mark said he takes responsibility for viewing child pornography.

But he also says that not all sex offenders are the same.

At his mandated group sessions at Horizon Health Services, Mark says he encounters other sex offenders whose crimes are far different from his own offense, which did not involve any contact with children.

“I am with some people who have raped children multiple times, and it is very disturbing to hear,” he said.

Prosecutors and child advocates say that while individuals who view child pornography do not touch a child, their demand for those images creates the market, prompting others to exploit children in the production of the pornography.

Mark, who served five and a half years in prison, said he is a changed man. He no longer drinks or uses drugs, which he said contributed to his crime. Treatment at Horizon provided valuable life management skills that will prevent him from re-offending, he said.

“I consider myself a pretty average guy. I’m in a long-term relationship with my girlfriend, and we are about to buy a house. I have a stable job at a good company,” he said.

But when police notified Sweet Home school officials of sex offenders in the district and that information was forwarded to parents, Mark said it was further driven home that his crime was no secret.

“One of the parents I work with recognized my name and told work. It was a little nerve-wracking at first, but in the end I was glad it happened because everything is out in the open now.”

Still, he wishes his name could be removed sooner from the registry.

“It is not so much for my own benefit as for my family,” he said, “how people will treat my girlfriend and our children, when we have them.”

Level 3 view

Stanley Aloan is a Level 3 offender. He said he, too, would like his name removed from the registry. But that will never happen.

He was convicted of a crime involving sexual contact with an 8-year-old girl in Genesee County.

Living on the fringes of society in an East Side boarding house where the hallways smell faintly of urine and the floors are uneven, the 63-year-old Aloan’s room is cluttered and barely big enough to accommodate his bed and table.

“You’ll have to excuse the mess,” said Aloan, who unlike many offenders, was willing to share his story – even while asking a reporter to speak in a quiet voice so that other residents in nearby rooms would not hear the discussion.

In 1995, he was convicted of first-degree attempted sexual abuse. He was released from state prison in 1999; several years later, he suffered a nervous breakdown and started throwing his possessions out of a window.

“I’ve been in treatment since 2013,” Aloan said. “I’m bipolar.”

He assaulted the girl, he said, while he was under the influence of drugs, but does not believe he would re-offend.

“I don’t feel like I would, but in society’s view, there is a chance I might,” said Aloan, who said he takes responsibility for his crime.

Currently unemployed, Aloan said the rehabilitation treatment he receives from a mental health provider has helped him.

Treatment experts

Sex crimes such as rape are considered “high impact” because they have devastating ramifications for the victim and others close to the victim, said Heffler, the certified treatment provider.

But research has shown the threat of being placed on a sex offender registry has not reduced sex-related crimes, he said, and laws monitoring sex offenders have holes in them.

“It’s felt that the sex offender registry still doesn’t have sufficient teeth to prevent those individuals from re-offending. You could have a sex offender who continues to have contact with children after he has completed his prison sentence and supervised release. The registry has minimal authority to control or manage those individuals who remain at risk,” Heffler said.

One of the keys to avoiding re-offending starts with the individual’s willingness to accept responsibility, according to Dr. Herbert M. Weis at Horizon Health Services.

“We assess whether they are truly motivated and whether they accept ownership for what they did as opposed to blaming the victim,” said Weis, who is Horizon’s chief quality and compliance officer. “We don’t specifically look at the level classification. We look at the actual offense and the number of offenses and the behavior affiliated with it.”

Offenders accepted into the treatment program after a six-week screening period are routinely polygraphed “to assess their current behavior,” he said. Parole and probation officers are kept abreast of the status of their progress, Weis added.

Other perspectives

Police, in general, said they have to rely on the law and the judges who determine risk levels, but they believe the registry has proved to be a positive tool in helping keep the public safe.

“We can keep better track of the offenders. We can keep an eye on them. If we have an incident in the area, we can start by checking on them right away,” Cheektowaga Assistant Police Chief James J. Speyer Jr. said.

The Rev. Terry J. King, whose Saving Grace Ministries in Buffalo provides housing for ex-convicts, raises questions about removing names from the registry.

“Individuals who are forced to report where they live to law enforcement are accountable,” King said. “When we remove that accountability, we reduce public safety.”

There are about 30 sex offenders living in the housing he provides for ex-convicts. For Level I sex offenders coming off the registry, he said, it would be of value to study whether they re-offend.

“Are we willing to have new victims?” he asked. “That’s the question the public will have to answer.”