A review of cases against roughly 500 sex offenders, whose names were removed from a public registry in December, began in earnest this week, as the Sex Offender Registry Board seeks to identify which offenders might still be risks to the public and should be returned to the public watch list.
The reclassification process is expected to take as long as two years. In the meantime, the offenders will remain anonymous in their communities, raising concerns among community and victim advocates.
“There is no information for hundreds of sex offenders,” said Jennifer Lane, president of Community Voices, a nonprofit that advocates on behalf of crime victims, including child victims of sex crimes.
“They’ve taken this information, and put the public at risk,” said Lane, a mother of three. “[Victims] use this is a tool to track the locations of sex offenders, and now they don’t have that information.”
The new hearings were made necessary by a Supreme Judicial Court ruling in December that required a higher standard of proof when ranking how dangerous a convicted sex offender might be, and how likely they are to reoffend.
Kevin Hayden, chairman of the Sex Offender Registry Board, said officials will make what information they can available to local authorities, and will prioritize hearings for the most dangerous offenders in the coming weeks.
The timing of the court decision is unfortunate, he said, because groups that run youth summer camps may now begin asking the registry board about the criminal histories of applicants — but the information may not be public.
Hayden added that more than 9,000 victims who have asked to be part of a registry alert system have been notified that the offenders’ identities have been temporarily removed from the public registry.
“We are reaching out to these victims. . . . They are being informed of what happened,” he said.
Hayden provided an overview of the process Wednesday morning for a Special Commission to Reduce the Recidivism of Sex Offenders, a group created by the state Legislature to look at reforming the criminal justice system’s management of convicted sex offenders.
State Representative Paul Brodeur, a Democrat from Melrose who cochairs the commission, said the board’s work to hold new hearings has been time-consuming and complex.
“It certainly creates a public safety concern,” he said. “But the court has set out a new standard, and they’re doing their best to deal with it.”
The Sex Offender Registry Board keeps the state’s official registry of nearly 12,000 convicted sex offenders, who are classified according to “risk of reoffense and degree of danger.” For the last 18 years, members of the board had only to prove that there was a preponderance of evidence to classify them as a danger and put their name on the public list.
But the December court ruling has forced the state to meet a higher standard in proving a sex offender’s threat, requiring “clear and convincing evidence.” That meant that more than 500 offenders are entitled to new classification hearings.
‘We are reaching out to the victims. ... They are being informed of what happened.’
The court ruling found that sex offenders today are subjected to greater public scrutiny — and consequences — by having their identities shared on the Internet and through social media, including when they apply for housing or for jobs. At times, their lawyers also argued, they are harassed and accused of crimes more severe than the ones they committed.
Larni Levy, director of the Alternative Recruitment and Registration Support Unit for the Committee on Public Counsel Services, the state’s public defender agency, said the ruling appropriately recognizes that 86 percent of convicted sex offenders do not reoffend.
“It was a necessary change,” Levy said. “The common perception is that once a person has offended sexually, they are likely to reoffend, and the statistics don’t bear that out.”
In demanding the higher standard, the court applied its ruling retroactively to include cases in which sex offenders had open appeals of their classifications.
Hayden, chairman of the Sex Offender Registry Board, said the board has been forced to declassify those offenders while their appeals are pending, meaning they’ve been removed from the public registry watch list. However, they remain registered with the state, so that law enforcement officials know their identities and whereabouts.
Typically, information on Level 2 sex offenders is available at local police departments and on the sex offender registry website, and information about Level 3 sex offenders — the class designated as most likely to reoffend — is actively disseminated on social media accounts, at local schools, and libraries, in addition to being listed on the registry’s website.
The board will now hold a new hearing for each of those offenders and classify his or her risk level, a process that can take weeks for each case. The 500 offenders who are entitled to new hearings are in addition to the roughly 400 new offenders who are classified on average each year.
Hayden said Governor Charlie Baker’s administration has committed to hiring five new hearing officers, as well as several support staff to speed up the hearings, but he said it could take time to train the new staff.
Meanwhile, the Sex Offender Registry Board last month adopted new hearing guidelines — based in part on court orders in other recent cases — that incorporate the latest science in how to weigh a sex offender’s risk levels and likelihood of reoffending.
Registry board staff has now been trained to incorporate the new guidelines, and the new standard under the high court ruling, Hayden said.
He said the board is working to prioritize hearings for those who were previously classified as having a high risk of reoffending.
“We literally have to go through a case-by-case analysis to see which hearings we need to be doing first and can be doing first,” he said. “We are operating under a completely new paradigm from where we were even in December of last year.”
Levy, the public defender, said she’s hopeful the new requirements lead to fewer public postings on the sex offender registry.
“It’s not in the public’s interest to post information about people who don’t pose a high risk to reoffend,” she said. “And that’s the rationale and what drives this [court] decision.”Milton Valencia can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.