Thursday, February 25, 2010

Grain of salt

I noticed this week that the Lincoln Journal Star, has joined the ranks of newspapers that are publishing maps of registered sex offenders. The data about registered sex offenders are public record, so nothing keeps anyone with a little talent from grabbing that from the State Patrol’s sex offender registry, and geocoding it for display in Google Maps.


We’ve been doing something similar in our own internal mapping applications for over a decade. I’ve never been keen on publishing this data in our public mapping applications, though, because we are not the keeper of the records: the registry is the responsibility of the Nebraska State Patrol. In recent years, though, it has become comparatively simple to use public-domain tools to geocode and map all manner of data , so I’m not surprised the newspaper has chosen to do so.

I do, however, have a few words of caution. You will note at the top of the Journal Star’s application that over 80 sex offenders in Lincoln do not appear on the map. Many of those are located in various correctional institutions, but there are several records that are just missing from the map. For example, if you zoom into 4505 Holdrege Street, you will find one offender on the Journal Star’s map. If you scroll through the sex offenders in zip code 68503 on the sex offender registry, though, you will find around 10 offenders at that address. The same thing would be true at 1009 G Street, 3700 Cornhusker Highway, 1626 D Street, and more than a dozen other addresses in Lincoln where multiple sex offenders share the same street address.

The granddaddy of them all would be 801 W. Prospector Place, where over 50 sex offenders share the same street address in the 68522 zip code, but only one push pin appears on the Journal Star’s map. Actually, they are there in the Journal Star’s data (check for the actual names in the table), they just won’t appear when you click the pin on the map because the data points are layered on top of one another. In addition, not all addresses will geocode properly, and the geocoding process itself is inherently inaccurate: it’s just an estimate of the precise location.

The greatest source of error derives from the fact that the addresses are self-reported by sex offenders. Sex offenders are highly mobile, and the number of absconders and fictitious or outdated addresses is significant. Some are homeless and have no address. Offenders have a few days to update any address changes, some fail to do so as required, and there is a certain amount of delay involved in the updating of records.

As a result, no one should ever assume that the data are complete, or completely accurate. This is not to say the information is worthless, just take it with a certain grain of salt.


Anonymous said...

Registry information is worthless? Yes and no.
Yep sure is. Give me one documented case where this has prevented a sex attack! It prevents the schools from employing one, but they have enough working as it is.
This is all "feel good" "feel safe"
"watch out for the monster under the bed" CRAP! And people buy it.
Sorry, I have to say the entire idea is all seated in our Govt wanting to make us "feel" safe. It is a good way for the elected to get votes.

It is great though, to spend time looking at people. Like looking at a mag in the check out line at the corner market, you know, those tabloids with stuff like "women eats 74 pound pizza in two bites". The news paper guy with the mugs in the dollar paper has more success than those great minds that thought this "keep safer" "sex attack" prevention idea up. The entier point is that a FAR GREATER number of perps are amungst us (reflected in 8 of ten go unreported) and we think posting those we know about will help.
Im done. I have to go get my rolaids.

Anonymous said...

Chief-I hadn't thought about him in awhile but one of my favorite arrests of all time lives at 801 W. Prospector. Maybe I'll visit the next time I'm in Lincoln.


Trevor Brass said...

Nice information, we've had some problems with one of the fine gentlemen on this list at our college before.

Anonymous said...

Grain of salt? More like a cattle cube. With the fishwrap's constantly dwindling circulation numbers, it's not surprising that they'll pull out all the stops to try and retain and attract suckers...I mean subscribers. If they closed their doors, we'd lose a lot more bathwater than baby.

Tom Casady said...


It's not the Journal Star, so much as the whole underlying data source: self-reported addresses and address changes by the registered sex offenders. I have no qualms with people checking the registry for RSOs in their vicinity. I just want them to realize that they are never going to get a complete picture--the ones they see are just part of the total, because no matter how good the database is or how accurate the mapping is, it all comes from a source that is not totally current and complete.

Anonymous said...

Chief-I assume the database, however incomplete, is still a valuable tool for law enforcement to use and is not just a "feel safe" deal for the public. Unfortunately, predators act like predators so if you know where some of them are located, that's good info to have.


Anonymous said...

Don't forget that over 95% of sex offenders never re-offend. And the ones that do re-offend against someone that knows them rather than a stranger that the State Patrol and the media tell us we should be vigilant about.

At that point, it kinda seems silly to bring out the torches and pitchforks against so many thousands of people when only a handful of them are truly a high risk to re-offend. It sure would be nice to have a risk assessment system in place to help the public know who the high risk people are... but then we had that in place until the Federal Government, John Bruning, and the Nebraska Legislature took all that worthwhile information away and buried it under mounds of non-dangerous, low-risk clutter.

Well... maybe eventually we can get back to a sensible way of protecting the public.

Tom Casady said...


Yes, it's valuable. I think you meant that predators DON'T look like predators.


Personally, I'm not all that convinced that risk levels can be accurately predicted, so I opt for more notification, rather than less. It is noteworthy that well over half of Nebraska's sex offenders under the old scheme graded out as Level 3-High risk on the State's risk assessment instrument.

No one is carrying torches and pitchforks in Lincoln, and although I understand that some offenders are harmed by public disclosure of their status and whereabouts, I tend to believe they should have thought about that before they ______________ .

Anonymous said...


What was there to think about before they committed ______ when the law was enacted after the crime, after the plea/conviction, after the sentencing, after their sentence, after their probation, and in some cases after they had been removed from the registry? Are you suggestion that every person's actions - legal or illegal - should be dictated by what they think government may possibly enact in the future rather than what the law actually is?

And as for your "level 3" observation... I think you would be horrified at what the State Patrol's risk assessment tool was spitting out as level 3's. There is a reason that SOs were challenging their level 3 status... and winning. Judges were overriding those determinations of "level 3" by looking at the facts. Unfortunately, the new system doesn't even have a provision to challenge it -- even if it is wrong.

Which begs the question... what if we are wrong? What if the government, and therefore the public, are wrong? How many of these people, their families and their children are we harming for what amounts to very little gain in the case of someone who is of no danger to anyone?

Just remember folks... be careful taking someone else's vague stereotype as a premise for making a decision that can harm someone.

Anonymous said...

Tom , Thank you for this story. But I also much comment on your comment , "I tend to believe they should have thought about that before they " committed the crime..

In my particular case and several other cases similar to mine. 15 years ago when i was in college at UNL, I met a girl that lied to me about her age. Few months later, I am arrested at work for sexual assault of a child ( which i still feel is an unfair classification of my charge ) In her police interviews, my " victum " admited that she lied to me about her age, but me being 19 at the time, i am suppose to challege or question or assertion to me that she wasnt old enough?

I was a level 1 , my crime was 1995, begun on the " registry " in 1997, was suppose to be off the registry in 2009, but with the new law i was extended and am currently challeging duty to register under the new law.

So 15 years after my arrest - my picture is now on the public website and many like them ( thanks journal star ) what is funny - is the picture shown is my picture from my 1995 arrest..

My daughter is set to start Kindergarden in the fall. But now without the ' risk assessment ' tools previously used for the last 13 years,now i am not allowed on LPS property due to the lack of the " levels " as previously the Level 3 offenders were not allowed on school grounds, but now without those distinctions LPS now is not allowing anyone listed on the list. So for the next 10 years, i cant drop off , pick up , attend christmas programs, watch a basketball game, attend commencement? Really?

When this guy - who beat up his 11 year old daughter and his wife is able to go to stuff like that? ( when he gets out of jail of course )

Why focus the registry on those of us that are complying with the laws and focus on finding those that are not registered, correctly?

Just recently a pair of LPS officers came to my house to verify my address ( even though i had just done it 3 weeks prior in person to the state patrol office / sherriff office )

In having a discussion with them about it, they said 5% probably need to be monitored, the other 95% are probably ok..

Just think if you saved 95% of that Sex OFfender Budget and only spent 5% of it.. Could save a library / librian's job , a teacher , maybe even go towards a new playground ?

Anonymous said...

Chief writes..I tend to believe they should have thought about that before they ______________ .

response: You sound like someones Mother. But I will never tell.
Im going to go do a cross word.

Steve said...

I don't know where 12:48 got his/her information, and I can't (won't) cite any of my own, but I have been under the impression for quite some time that sex offendes are generally rated the highest of all crimes when it comes to the probability of reoffending. Anyone got any verifiable data on that?

On the other hand, I don't see how knowing the address (or supposed address) of a sex offender makes anyone any safer. Nor do I think forcing them to live some arbitrary distance from schools really matters. Keeping them in prison is probably the only thing that would truly keep society safer.

Anonymous said...

1:58 has a great point. The girl lies about her age and he pays the price for a very long time.

Tom Casady said...

1:14 and 1:58 -

Arrests and convictions are a public record, and always have been, even before the sex offender registry, and even for offenders who were previously Level 1 and Level 2, not listed on the public sex offender registry site.

Here in Lincoln, felony records have been available on the Lancaster County Attorney's web site for years--whether or not the defendant was on the public sex offender registry. After you are long dropped from the registry, the record of your arrest and conviction will remain a public record.

1:58, I was easily able to find the handful of "statutory rape" cases we investigated in 1975. There was only one case that met the parameters you described. I read the file.

Are you sure the victim was 15? I'm looking at a 14 year old and a 21 year old. That's the only 1995 case I see where the defendant ended up classified as a Level 1 after conviction.

If your defense was that the victim misrepresented her age to you, trial was your opportunity to make that argument, and the State must prove the charge beyond a reasonable doubt.

Anonymous said...


I don't see where 1:58 ever stated that he was innocent of the crime. His point , as I read it was 15 years ago it happen and he is now being repunished for it 15 years later, By public shaming?

Reading that link 1:58 posted about the guy in omaha " beatng " up his 11 year old daughter. Wow no comment on that ? Only questing the age of the girl that lied about his age?

Tom Casady said...

8:38 -

Off my case. I don't pass these laws, and I never testified on any of them. My point was that his opportunity to present his defense was at the trial, and that his record of arrest and conviction has always been a public record and easily available anyway.

Pardon me for not necessarily believing every story an anonymous poster tells me. I guess when you've been a police officer for a few decades, you've come to realize that some people don't always disclose all the details of their acts, and that it's human nature to paint your own conduct in the most favorable light. I simply saw nothing in this investigative case file whatsoever (if I have the right case) where the defendant asserted that the 14 year old victim misrepresented her age. If he didn't, he should have, and his opportunity passed with a plea or a verdict.

What about the domestic child abuse offender? You want him on a registry, find a senator. Oh, wait, we already have a Child Abuse/Neglect Registry. And once he's convicted, that will be public record, too, and you'll find some websites out there right now that grab such public records and map them for your enjoyment. I'd be happy to show you how to find him online for free, too.

As the technology has emerged, these once rather obscure records are now getting awfully accessible to anyone who can click a mouse. I publish a guide on our website about how to use them to do background checks.

Google thyself accordingly.

Tom Casady said...

By the way, for those of you taking issue with my advice that you should have thought about that before you ____________ . Very few registered sex offenders got there for the crime commonly known as "statutory rape." I'm not without pity for people who's immature actions in their late teens or early 20's have led to serious consequences they never anticipated. I've been giving teenagers and young adults for a few decades advice at my many speaking engagements about the many risks of casual sex.

I suppose you can add this to the list:

"If you have sex with someone you barely know, not even well enough to know his or her true age, you are taking several risks. One of those risks is this: even if he or she is a willing participant, but under the age of 16 while you 19 or older, you could be arrested, prosecuted, and convicted of a sex crime for which you will have to register for the next 25 years. If he or she happens to be under the age of 13, it will be lifetime registration. If you assert that the other party lied to you about his or her age, the judge or jury might not believe you! If you decide to take a plea bargain to avoid tfacing a possible conviction for First Degree Sexual Assault, but the reduced charge is still a registerable offense, you will still be required to register as a sex offender. It will be easy for an employer, or your future fiance's dad, or your opponent in the general election to look you up on any number of public websites. This could be true even if the sex offender registry no longer exists, because the arrest and conviction are a public record, have been since the beginning of the Republic, and are now pretty easy to access online in many places, and becoming easier by the day."

Too bad stupid mistakes and bad conduct can sometimes have long term consequences like STDs, babies, and convictions, but that's the way the cookie crumbles. The best way to avoid that is to follow the rest of my advice:

"Do not have sex with anyone that you have not known very well for a long time, with whom you are deeply in love, to whom you are completely committed--preferably married."