According to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, Curtis Talley, 83, is a sex offender living in Seminole county. If you go to the FDLE's sex-offender registry at www3.fdle.state.fl.us/sopu and type in Talley's name, you'll find his listing and photo. You'll see that he committed sexual battery. You'll see that his crime was against a minor. You could study his yellowed eyes and note that his last known address is in Altamonte Springs. You might wonder why men like Talley are out on the streets, but if you live in Altamonte Springs you'll likely be thankful that the FDLE has alerted you to this menace. Now you can be vigilant, right?
No need. Talley won't be bothering you. He's been dead for three years. He's one of hundreds of "ghosts" on the FDLE's website who, for one reason or another, are never taken off, even though they've shuffled off this mortal coil. The only thing Talley's record and the hundreds like it does these days is inflate the number of sex offenders users of FDLE's website believe are loose on the streets of Florida.
And there are a lot of living people on the FDLE site who are no threat to you either. Offenders who live outside Florida, are in prison or who have been deported are all listed among the 36,037 sex criminals registered with the FDLE. All told, nearly half of that number are not here, in one way or another. Which means two things: The FDLE's website is exaggerating the threat posed by sex offenders, and you aren't getting a clear picture of who is and isn't in your neighborhood.
DAWN OF THE DEAD
As of Nov. 16, there were 541 dead or reported dead on the state rolls. It's FDLE's policy that offenders' names will remain on the rolls for one year after their death.
"If the public is checking regularly, they can be informed that an offender living nearby is no longer alive," says FDLE spokeswoman Kristen Perezluha.
That's a ridiculous policy in and of itself, says Jim Freeman. "What possible threat can a dead person pose to the public?"
Freeman is co-founder and legal affairs director for Sohopeful International, a group whose mission is to challenge overzealous and ineffective sex-offender laws. He thinks the policy of not immediately removing the dead from the rolls only contributes to an atmosphere of fear and hysteria. It's an arguable point. But often enough the FDLE isn't even following its own rules. Orlando Weekly found that of Central Florida's 57 dead or reported dead offenders, at least 23 died more than a year ago. (Most deaths were confirmed by counties, but nine were confirmed by www.rootsweb.com, a site recommended by an employee in vital statistics.)
Preston Lane Huff is registered as a sex offender in Volusia County, but he's been dead since 2001. Ernest G. Martinez is still listed even though he's been dead since 2000. And Allen P. Hubbard, who is registered in Seminole County, has been dead since August 1997, more than eight years ago. Hubbard, according to the FDLE's site, is "reported deceased." His last known address, a post office box, was posted on the FDLE site in 2001, four years after his death.
The FDLE says the reason for dead offenders populating the rolls is that it hasn't received confirmation of death. The responsibility of maintaining the website doesn't fall on any one person at FDLE. Instead, many state agencies, such as the Department of Highway Safety and the Department of Corrections, that might receive new information on an offender have the ability to update the FDLE's registry.
Perezluha says there are FDLE analysts who remove dead offenders from the site, but the system for reporting dead offenders is virtually nonexistent. There's no agreement between counties and the state to send death certificates to the FDLE. If the FDLE hears from law enforcement that one of its offenders might be dead, it's the department's responsibility to get verification, which often doesn't happen for more than a year, if at all.
This haphazard approach to updating the website is why dead people like Hubbard and Talley live on in virtual reality.
Besides the dead, there are thousands of other offenders still on the site who pose little or no threat to the public. For instance, 807 offenders have been deported, and 7,173 have moved out of state. (The high number of out-of-state offenders is likely due to Florida's requirement that sex offenders must register within 48 hours of entering the state, meaning many on the list might just be passing through.)
But the largest chunk of listed offenders who don't currently pose a threat is the incarcerated; 8,260 on Florida's rolls are in custody at the local, state or national level.
Why list people behind bars? As a precautionary measure for when they're released, says the FDLE. "A lot of offenders will stay in Florida once they get out," Perezluha says. "We're just making sure the public is informed."
If you're going to track people in prison, you'd better be diligent about it; many aren't getting out for years, and some, like Calvin J. Austin, 29, a sex offender registered in Volusia County, are in for life.
"I ask again, what purpose does it serve to list people who are in jail or aren't even in this state?" says Freeman. "They can't harm anyone while they're in custody."
FEAR AND HYSTERIA
When Megan's Law passed in 1996, it was intended to "require the release of relevant information to protect the public from sexually violent offenders." The FDLE's website is the highest-profile means of releasing that information. It's where people go when they want to know if they need to be a little extra cautious around the neighbors. According to a 2001 Department of Justice summary of sex offender registries, the FDLE's website draws about five million hits per month.
The default search settings on the site do filter out the deceased, the deported, the out-of-state and the incarcerated (except for offenders locked up in county jails).
But when you ask the state of Florida how many sex offenders it has, all of the above are included in the figure.
Besides portraying Florida as crawling with offenders, the overall figure can help determine how much money Florida gets to comply with registry laws. Under the Jacob Wetterling Act, one of the first sex-offender registry laws, the U.S. Department of Justice's Sex Offender Management Assistance Program offers grants to states to aid in compliance with registry requirements. The law states, "In allocating funds under this subsection, the director may consider the annual number of sex offenders registered in each eligible state's monitoring and notification programs."
More sex offenders equals more money. And Florida will need it, if a bill introduced by Sen. Bill Nelson makes it into law. Nelson has proposed the Sexual Predator Effective Monitoring Act of 2005, which would require tracking ankle bracelets for offenders. In the first year, the law would disperse $10 million to the states to help implement the tracking program. The proposed law states that a "share of the funding under this Act `will be` based on the total number of eligible states and the population of sex offenders to be monitored with global positioning systems in those states." Dan McLaughlin, a spokesman for Nelson, says the initial $10 million will go to the states that request and show a need for the money. If all of the states' requests add up to more than $10 million, then the allocations would be based on the number of offenders in each state. Florida, with its reported 36,037 offenders, is near the top of the list nationally.
Nelson's bill to crack down on sex offenders is one of at least five introduced at the federal level this year. To illustrate the need, Nelson remarked to his fellow senators, "In our state alone, we have over 30,000 registered sex offenders." Soon that number had shown up on CBS news and in the Christian Science Monitor, and in the months following it would be repeated on CNN and other broadcast news outlets. Two months after Nelson introduced his bill, Florida Rep. Alcee Hastings introduced the House version and again threw out the 30,000-plus figure to prove the need for the legislation.
It's a big, scary number, to be sure. If all the state's sex offenders, as reported by the FDLE, were grouped together, they'd fill the TD Waterhouse Centre to capacity. Twice. Unfortunately, the number has no relation to the reality of the problem.
Freeman, of Sohopeful, thinks the bloated figure is a danger in and of itself, as it makes it hard for people to separate the truly dangerous from the rest of the pack. "All this adds up to is fear and hysteria," he says. "That doesn't help keep people safe. But it can help politicians pass laws. It can help make them look better."firstname.lastname@example.org