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Sex Offenders - where they live

Downside of registries: harassment, vigilantism

Brandon Bain, Newsday, October 23, 2006
Staff writer Erik German contributed to this story. 

State sex offender registries were established beginning 10 years ago to allow residents to locate sex offenders in their neighborhoods. But some experts worry the registries also allow those who loathe the presence of sex offenders to take matters into their own hands. 

"Sex offenders are living in our communities and we have to accept that fact," said Laura Ahearn of the Stony Brook-based advocacy group Parents for Megan's Law. "But the registry is not a tool to commit crimes or harass sex offenders. It's an opportunity to be made aware so you can protect your children." 

As part of the federal Megan's Law, all states have online sex offender registries; the New York State Sex Offender Registry went online in 2000. The registries are used primarily to help notify residents about the presence of sex offenders. But they also have led to incidents of vigilantism. 

In May, two registered sex offenders in a rural Maine community were shot and killed by a 20-year-old man who used the state's online registry to track them. In 2005, a man in Washington state shot and killed two Level 3 sex offenders after locating their addresses on the sheriff's Web site. 

Last month, Mastic resident Donald Keegan, 36, was arrested and charged with planning to burn down a house on Eleanor Avenue and kill its occupants - four Level 3 sex offenders. 

"This is not the first time that an individual who has committed a horrible crime, but has paid their debt to society, has been targeted for vigilante justice," said Donna Lieberman, executive director of the New York American Civil Liberties Union. "This is a matter of grave concern." 

Keegan's actions followed a month of local agitation. John Sicignano, president of the Mastic Civic Association, had discovered the Eleanor Avenue house in August when he used the state registry to check a rumor that offenders had moved into the neighborhood. 

Sicignano, accompanied by a retired Suffolk policeman, went door to door to notify neighbors. He also organized community meetings and protests. 

The registry also has been used in less dramatic fashion. 

Last year, Level 3 offender Xavier Morris told Newsday he had been forced to move four times since his release from prison in 2003. He said residents in Mastic Beach, Shirley, Selden and Sound Beach often appeared in front of his home waving printouts from the state registry with his photo on it. 

Experts said using the registry for harassment is illegal and counterproductive. 

"The re-offense rate is far lower if people are working full- time, have stable homes and can participate in treatment," said Richard Hamill of the New York State Alliance of Sex Offender Service Providers. "If they are transient, chronically unemployed, they aren't able to access treatment. They end up with a lot of time on their hands and a lot of frustration and that makes our communities more at risk." 

Sicignano, the Mastic civic leader, called Keegan's actions "stupid." 

"I did what I should have done," he said. "I'll do it again. This community is going to be safe, no matter what." 

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