Estimates of the number of entries with crucial mistakes run into the tens of thousands. One man—and pretty much only one man—is trying to fix them.
Tim Fisher steps slowly up the driveway, glancing back with mournful eyes a few times toward his sister-in-law across the street, silently pleading for her encouragement. With neat, shoulder-length, salt-and-pepper hair and a mustache, dressed in a plaid button-down shirt and shapeless jeans, Fisher is 49, but in his mind he’s the cherub-cheeked boy with the sun-bleached bangs who walked this asphalt hundreds of times, every Saturday for seven years. Today he trembles with the same trepidation that his boyhood self felt.
By the time he reaches the doorstep, he feels a strange, unsettling vulnerability in being shadowed and hidden from street view by a red-tile overhang. This is his decision, his right, he reminds himself. He just drove five hours from his Las Vegas home to this quiet block in Anaheim, California, fruitlessly trying to release his gathering anxiety with cigarette after cigarette as his sister-in-law soothed him with assurances that she was there for him, come what may.
Interesting that this article points out tens of thousands of errors in registries nationally. These errors caused by the wording and manner in which the Adam Walsh Act was implemented. The Act that was supposed to do the exact opposite; make all states the same, but ultimately caused a mess so bad that it will be impossible to fix. So much for the work of Congress!... ... ...
Now he stands there for a bit, under the overhang, immobilized by a kaleidoscopic clutter of memories. He sees the unsuspecting look on his mother’s face as the man who lives here, Ernie Schwobeda, drops by to pick him up to do Schwobeda’s yard work. Feel blessed, Fisher hears his mother telling him, that a man of God has taken such a personal interest in you. He remembers the sound of the Saturday-morning cartoons, blaring from the TV inside the house he now stands before, which his mom wouldn’t have allowed him to watch. He can taste the ice cream and candy he wasn’t supposed to be eating—before noon, no less—all of it bribes in exchange for his participation and secrecy. He spots the top of the backyard tree where he hid that one time. Even as Schwobeda yelled furiously for him to return, young Tim only emerged from behind the branches after Schwobeda’s wife, Mabel, came home.
It’s a lot to take in, and he needs to steady himself now that he’s at the door after all of these years. This is the moment he has worked toward for decades, that he has rehearsed countless times in every tone. Angry. Sad. Threatening. Pleading.
By now, he has boiled it down to one loaded question: “Do you remember?”
He rings the bell.
“Have you ever looked up Mike Tyson on the sex offender registry?” Fisher asked me three years ago in a Facebook note. “You should try it.” My highest-profile work at the time was focused on Vegas celebrity, so he knew he could bait me with this tease. Tyson, as anyone who saw the movie The Hangover is well aware, now lives in the Vegas-adjacent city of Henderson, Nevada.
I followed Fisher’s advice, hoping for a simple, dishy scandal about the former boxer and convicted rapist. Instead, Fisher dropped me down into the quicksand he had been wading in alone for years.
I would discover, as Fisher knew from countless attempts to rectify the problem and get anyone else to care, that the “system” of sex offender registries is a failure. The mishmash of databases kept by federal, state, and municipal agencies is riddled with inaccuracies and mistakes that often make it impossible for rape victims to know where their assailants are today; for parents of young children to really know whether a sex offender lives up the block; for ex-convict sex offenders trying to live in peace without fear that a bureaucratic snafu will result in an erroneous arrest for noncompliance; and for innocent people who happen to live where sex offenders are mistakenly listed as residing and are harassed, shunned, and sometimes attacked.
Federal guidelines say what information states ought to provide and advise how to keep it up-to-date but only 17 states are certified by the Department of Justice as “substantially compliant.” There are hundreds of sex offender databases, and they’re not, for the most part, networked or cross-referenced. When, for instance, Indiana says an offender who committed a crime there has moved to Wyoming, the information sometimes reaches officials there, sometimes doesn’t. Likewise, when that offender arrives and registers in Wyoming, sometimes Indiana is told, sometimes not. Sometimes they tell the wrong state.
Keeping these files updated and correct is a gargantuan task of staffing and technological acumen that outpaces the budgets and capabilities of most law enforcement agencies. Rather than provide more budget or streamline the system to minimize errors, state lawmakers either ignore the problems or, in a fit of tough-on-crime pique whenever that is politically expedient, add more rules.
“It really is a medieval system,” says former California state Sen. Tom Ammiano, who, before term limits forced him out of office last year, tried but failed to advance legislation aimed at tackling these problems in his state. “I kept asking how much money we were spending to make these mistakes. I hated being an accomplice to these inaccuracies. But nobody in politics wants to be seen as being soft on sex offenders.”
Several tiny activist groups work to either abolish the sex offender system or make it fairer to convicts, but Fisher is pretty much on his own when it comes to fixing the inaccuracies. He doesn’t work full-time, so—to the occasional alarm of his husband and other relatives—he spends most of his waking hours spotting and documenting errors and then trying to persuade the folks who oversee the databases to correct them. ..Continued.. VERY LONG ARTICLE.. by Steve Friess