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City, county struggle with sex offender notification

Posted 6/13/12 (Wed)

By Kate Ruggles
Farmer Staff Writer

The legal mandate for a sex offender registry brings to light the once taboo notion that sex offenders not only exist, but live and work amongst the community, and it therefore functions to keep community members informed and safe. Or does it?
For the past three months, homeowners in McKenzie County have been opening their homes to a satellite installer who, unbeknownst to them, was classified as a high-risk sex offender in another state.
This begs the question, “Does the sex offender registry really do what it’s supposed to do?”
“The system is broke from the national level on down,” states Watford City Police Chief Slade Herfindahl, referring to the fact that the sex offender registry isn’t organized at the national level, but state to state. That gives way to 50 different systems of classification, which causes a lag in the classification of registered offenders across state lines.
“When a registered offender moves into the state, they have three days to notify the local law enforcement,” states Herfindahl. “Once that is done, we send their information on to SORAC (North Dakota’s Sex Offender Registration and Classification Committee).”
SORAC then assigns the individual a classification for the state of North Dakota and notifies the community of the offender’s presence, which usually consists of placing their information on the state’s sex offender registry website.
However, the process just described can take up to a year, according to Herfindahl, and in the meantime, that offender is placed on the website with a classification of ‘undetermined.’
The lag in safety occurs because SORAC has to treat every out-of-state offender like a new case and gather information from the offender’s prior state of residence, forcing SORAC into a holding pattern depending on how quickly that state gathers and relays the requested information.
“Every state has its own system of classification. One state classifies its offenders as class 1, 2, 3, or 4, but another state has only three classes, while North Dakota classifies them as Low Risk, Medium Risk, or High Risk. And the definitions of each class vary from state to state as well,” states McKenzie County Sheriff Ron Rankin.
In the meantime, community members sit with a false sense of security residing alongside an individual with an undetermined classification.
SORAC is also handling more cases than in previous years.
With the increasing influx of people moving to North Dakota from other states, SORAC finds itself reviewing an increased number of cases involving out-of-state registrants.
“The McKenzie County offender registry is up 200 percent in this last year,” states Rankin.
And according to Herfindahl, “the state’s sex offender website says that Watford City has 18 offenders residing there, but only four are actually living within the corporate city limits. Of those four, all are awaiting official classification from the state of North Dakota, and are classified on the website as undetermined.
SORAC is handling more work with the same work schedule and number of people, creating an outdated and incomplete North Dakota sex offender registry.
In a recent meeting involving Herfindahl, Rankin, Watford City City Council members and the McKenzie County Commissioners, these issues were addressed in an effort to form a collaborative system of dealing with the registry system’s lags in public safety.
“Improvements need to be made at the national and state level, but I can only worry about what I can control,” states Herfindahl.
Which is why Herfindahl, on May 21, made a new policy for handling registered offenders living in Watford City.
“I’m not smart enough to know how these individuals should be classified, but I am legally given the leeway to notify the public of the information I am given,” states Herfindahl.
Rankin agrees and has also revised his policy of dealing with registered sex offenders and notifying the public.
It is the hope of Herfindahl, Rankin, city and county officials that a collaborative system can be developed so McKenzie County residents are not left vulnerable to a lack of information and an undetermined classification.
“Local law enforcement has the ability to determine the scope and type of community notification that needs to be made,” states Liz Brocker of the North Dakota Attorney General’s office. “They have their fingers on the pulse of their community and feet on the ground and they are the best ones to decide how to handle the information they are being presented by the registered offender.”
In addition, Herfindahl feels that businesses should also exercise their right to perform background checks on applicants and employees.
“Businesses need to know the people who are working for them,” states Herfindahl. “We need a system of communication between employers, local law enforcement agencies, and city and county officials.”