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Murders Put Focus on Sex-Offender Registry Policies

Many states list hard-core predators alongside people who may pose no risk to the public. The enlarged map shows different state policies for listing sex-offenders on public registries.
Many states list hard-core predators alongside people who may pose no risk to the public. The enlarged map shows different state policies for listing sex-offenders on public registries.

Nobody knows why Stephen Marshall killed two men who were on the sex-offender registry in Maine. Immediately after, he took his own life.

One of the men Marshall killed, Joseph Gray, was on the registry for raping a child. The other, William Elliott, was listed because he'd slept with his girlfriend before she turned 16.

These deaths and others raise troubling questions about the public sex-offender registries which every state has. And they highlight the fact that many states list hard-core predators alongside people who may pose little risk to the community.

When Mark Perk read about the men murdered in Maine, he thought the same fate might have befallen him. "They put my name and address on there," Perk says. "Anyone can find me. Yeah, it scared us."

Perk is on Illinois' sex-offender registry for having a sexual relationship with a 15-year-old girl. She's now his wife and the mother of their two children. Perk says he knows he broke the law -- but he says he's no child molester. He's just treated like one.

"My wife and I get pulled over constantly because our license is registered to a sex offender," he says.

Perk says he has received telephone calls from people calling him a child molester and threatening his life. "People pull by the house all the time, staring in the windows," he says.

It's easy to find Perk because of Megan's Law. Congress passed it in 1996 after 7-year-old Megan Kanka was raped and killed by a man living on her street. At the time, her parents did not know that her killer was a convicted sex offender.

Megan's Law requires states to share information on sex offenders with the public. But it leaves it up to the states to decide how.

About half the states have taken the path of Maine and Illinois: They simply post most of their registered sex offenders on the Internet. And they require the public be notified when any offender moves into a neighborhood -- regardless of the nature of their offense.

The Web sites don't distinguish between hard-core predators and people who may show little risk for committing future crimes, such as those convicted of a having a relationship with an underage partner.

In 2003, the Supreme Court ruled that this broad-brush approach is perfectly legal. That ruling has left Perk listed along with a rapist and a sexual predator on the registry for his neighborhood south of Chicago.

"It's absolutely disgusting what they're doing to children -- these pedophiles," Perk says. "But how do you think I feel having my face and name next to these guys? I'd like to kill them myself."

He has to follow the same rules: He can't live near a school or go to a park. He says police spend as much time monitoring him as they would a violent predator.

But the laws Perk complains about are enormously popular with politicians, law enforcement and victims' groups.

Diane Gelbach runs a program for sexual-assault victims out of Massachusetts. In her thinking, if predators network by sharing photos and names of their prey, why shouldn't the public network, too?

"The balance of power has been against victims of these crimes," she says. "I just see registries as a logical outworking of people trying to keep people safe."

But do they work?

"We don't know," says Wayne Logan, a law professor who's looked at how the registries and the community-notification requirement in Megan's Law have played out. It is clear the registries help the police keep track of offenders.

But Logan says the few studies that have been published aren't clear on whether these laws deter sex offenders. And there are clear data showing that sex offenders -- no matter how they're defined -- are being tossed out of their homes and their jobs across the country.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Libby Lewis
Libby Lewis is an award-winning reporter on the National Desk whose pieces on issues of law, society, criminal justice, the military and social policy can be heard on Morning Edition, All Things Considered, Day to Day, Weekend Edition Saturday, and other NPR shows.
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