State identifies many sex offenders who could strike again

By ANDREW WELSH-HUGGINS, AP Statehouse Correspondent
COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) - After a northeast Ohio girl was murdered by a convicted rapist, the state reviewed inmates' records to see how many should carry a tougher sex offender label.
As a result of that review, the Department of Rehabilitation and Correction identified almost 1,000 additional convicted sex offenders at risk of striking again.
Gov. Bob Taft on Thursday signed a bill strengthening Ohio's sex offender laws. He ordered a review of those laws after the September 2002 rape and murder of Kristen Jackson, 15, who was abducted at the Wayne County Fair in northeast Ohio.
Joel Yockey, 46, of Wooster, pleaded guilty in December to aggravated murder, rape and kidnapping. He was sentenced to life in prison without the chance of parole.
Yockey was released from prison in March 2002 following a 1987 conviction for raping a 17-year-old girl. He then lived with his parents several blocks from Jackson's home.
Yockey had been classified as a sexually oriented offender, requiring him to register his address with the sheriff's office, but he wasn't subject to having neighbors notified of his presence in the area.
After Jackson's murder, Taft, a Republican, created a committee to review Ohio's 1997 Megan's Law, which requires convicted sex offenders to register with local police. The law requires community notification for the most serious offenders.
It was modeled after a New Jersey law named for a 7-year-old girl raped and murdered by a convicted sex offender living in her neighborhood.
Under current law, local police only have to notify neighbors about repeat offenders and those labeled sex predators by judges, meaning they have been deemed at risk of committing additional sex crimes.
The bill, sponsored by Sen. Jeff Jacobson, a Dayton-area Republican, will extend the notification requirement to all convicted sex offenders.
That would include offenders such as Yockey.
The committee recommended the state re-screen inmates after it appeared a loophole allowed Yockey to move into a community without neighbors knowing he was there.
The state initially screened about 9,000 sex offenders when the 1997 law went into effect. About half were referred to courts for sex predator hearings.
This time, using national research on repeat sex offenders, officials adopted tougher guidelines for determining who should have a sexual predator hearing.
"We wanted to be sure that everyone is screened properly," said Judith French, Taft's top staff attorney and director of the committee that examined Ohio's laws.
For example, the previous guidelines looked at anyone who assaulted a child under 13 years old. The new guidelines looked at victims under 18.
Other new factors included whether the victim was a stranger and whether the offender had dropped out of sex treatment programs. Meeting just one of 10 criteria was enough for the state to refer an inmate for a sexual predator hearing, said David Berenson, the DRC's director of prison sex offender services.
"Everybody's thinking seemed to come to this point -- we've got to follow through and make sure nobody's falling through the gaps," Berenson said.
The state has referred the 986 additional sex offenders to judges throughout the state. If labeled sex predators, the offenders must register with police and neighbors for life.
Defense attorneys warned this could overburden the criminal justice system in the future.
"We can expect to see our deputy sheriffs going to hospitals, hospices, assisted living centers and retirement communities in order to carry out the lifetime notification procedures required by this law," said Barry Wilford, a Columbus attorney who testified in March on behalf of the Ohio Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers.
Jackson's mother, Sharon, pleaded with lawmakers in February to pass the bill.
"We as a family didn't know that there was a sex offender living in our neighborhood," she said. "If I would have had this knowledge, I would have protected my daughters from this evil beast."
(Copyright 2003 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)