Program marks its sixth year, with no 'high risk' offenders shown in the Storm Lake area, but several in Clay, Ida and Cherokee counties.
It's been six years since the Iowa Sex Offenders Registry was started as part of a nationwide movement, and state officials say it has proven an invaluable tool for law enforcement.A register was developed after the deaths of two children by convicted sex offenders.
The latest figures show Buena Vista County has 18 individuals listed on the state sex offenders registry. As of Sept. 1, there are 4,259 individuals registered across the state.
Every month approximately 50 more names are added, says Assistant Director of the Department of Criminal Investigations Steven Conlon.
"We view the registry as a good law enforcement tool to help us track individuals, and on the other side, it tends to be a deterrent," Conlon said. "Hopefully (registrants) realize we're intending to monitor their movements and that will serve as a deterrent to re-offending.
"At the same time we recognize there are some dangerous people on the registry that have a higher risk of re-offending," he added.
Across the nation, the push to establish state-by-state sex offender registries began in the early 1990s after the gun-point abduction of 11-year-old Jacob Wetterling.
Named after him, the Jacob Wetterling Crimes Against Children and Sexually Violent Offenders Registration Act of 1994 set guidelines for states to establish sex offender registers.
In 1996 the Wetterling Act was amended by Megan's Law, which requires states to release relevant information about registered sex offenders to protect the public. Megan's Law made national headlines, bearing the name of Megan Kanka who was sexually molested and murdered by a convicted sex offender when she was 7 years old.
Iowa's Sex Offender Registry became law on July 1, 1995, and requires registration of those convicted of a criminal offense against a minor, sexual exploitation or sexually violent crime.
"In Iowa a person is required to register if they've been convicted of a certain offense," Conlon said. "Most of those sexual offenses are against children by adults."
The minimum amount of time a person is on the register is 10 years, Conlon said, but in some cases that could be extended to life.
Information is maintained by the Department of Criminal Investigations in a computerized database, and serves multiple purposes to the state.
"It provides the citizens with an opportunity to make queries on volunteers, on babysitters, or checking about a day care provider," Conlon said. "It allows people the opportunity to identify those convicted of offenses.
"If you're going to hire a day care provider or babysitter, you can query that name to see if that's perhaps a person you want or don't want to have involved with you or your children," he said.
Ninety percent of the registrants are required to register because they have been convicted of a sexual offense against a child, Conlon said.
"As of now all states have a sex offender registry, but the laws pertaining to access to information vary greatly from state to state," he said.
There are several ways to access information in Iowa, including going to the sheriff's office, which maintains the records, searching the online database, or by public notification.
Anyone who is required to register as a sex offender first undergoes a risk assessment. Depending on the individual, that assessment may be done by DCI, the department of corrections, department of human services or juvenile court services, Conlon said.
The risk assessment is done to determine whether or not an individual is consider a low risk to re-offend, a moderate risk to re-offend, or at high risk to re-offend.
The different risk factors makes information about a person on the register more or less available, Conlon said. For example, those consider high risk to re-offend are posted on the Internet.
"If it's determined they are at risk, moderate or high category, usually there is some form of public notification that takes place, and they're automatically put on the web site," he said.
A search of the on-line database of "at-risk" offenders reveals none registered in Buena Vista County, but several in Cherokee, Clay and Ida counties.
On the other hand, the only way a person can find out if a low-risk individual is on the register is by having that person's name and either his or her Social Security number, birth date or address, and by going to the sheriff's office.
Once a risk assessment is done, the registrant is notified of the results and is given an opportunity to have a hearing on the assessment. "There's due process built into the risk assessment," Conlon said.
How much information that is released locally is based on the police department or sheriff's office, Conlon said.
"They're the ones that best know the community of Storm Lake, and not somebody sitting here in Des Moines," Conlon said.
Notification, depending on the perceived risk, can be releasing the individual's name and picture to newspapers or television stations, or law enforcement may just notify neighbors and local schools.
"The choice for notification is pretty much left in the hands of the community there because they best know their own community," Conlon said.
While the public is notified in certain situations, Conlon noted that people registered as sex offenders are protected under the law from acts against them, family or employers.
Often sex offenders move to new locations. As of fiscal year 2000, there have been about 2,280 address changes, though some registrants move multiple times which drives the average up, Conlon said.
"Some do lead a fairly transient type of lifestyle," he said. "The vast majority are registered for offenses against people 17 years of age or younger."
Every year the Department of Criminal Investigations DCI verifies the addresses of those on the registry. Any time a registrant moves, they have five days to report the change of address to the sheriff's office. Failure to do so the first time is an aggravated misdemeanor punishable by up to two years incarceration, and the second is considered a felony.
Since the Iowa Sex Offenders Registry started, Conlon said one of the biggest changes has been posting at-risk individuals on the Internet, which started in 1999. One of the biggest questions at the state level has been how much information should be made available the public.
"There's always extreme opinions on all sides, that 'We shouldn't require people to register,' to 'Why don't we put everybody on the Internet, why isn't everybody's information posted somewhere?" he said. "Ultimately what we're trying to do is balance the rights of the registrants and the rights of the citizens."
For the most part, though, Conlon said he thinks Iowans are satisfied with the current role of the sex offenders registry.
"When we do public notification and stuff like that, it's not unusual for the public to call and then say how pleased they are with the public notification or information appearing on the web site," Conlon said. "My perception is that this is a very, very popular program in the eyes of the public. I hear a lot of very favorable comments concerning the registry from members of the public.
"One thing that's very important for the public to remember about the whole thing, sex offenders have always been in our communities, and what we're hoping is that this will remove their ability to act secretly," Conlon said. "The sex offenders registry now allows the public a more readily accessible information about possibly someone that could be a danger to their family or children."