Predators still loose

Despite serious talk, reform to Ottawa’s sex offender registry is too slow in coming

Cory Bitternose is a repeat sex offender, a violent rapist who targets vulnerable women and professes his heartfelt remorse every time he gets caught. In 1990, after beating a Calgary woman so viciously that his sneaker imprint stayed on her face, he pleaded guilty, telling the court he wanted to spare his victim the trauma of testifying. A decade later, when he was back in custody facing two counts of sexual assault, Bitternose stuck to that strategy. He confessed, took his lumps, and vowed to change his callous ways. “I hurt some people pretty deeply,” he told a Regina judge. “And I am sorry.”

Today, the 38-year-old is behind bars yet again, accused of kidnapping, choking and sexually assaulting two more women in Banff, Alta., on July 13. During his last court appearance, Bitternose announced that he was switching lawyers and needed more time to prepare his defence. His words to the judge seemed all too familiar: “I would like to apologize to the Crown and the court,” he said.

Bitternose is staring at 46 separate charges in connection with the vicious attack. But what the public doesn’t know, until now, is that he is also facing a single charge back home in Saskatchewan: failure to comply with the national sex offender registry.

In Canada, all registered sex offenders (19,000 and counting) must inform local authorities if they are leaving home for more than two weeks. Bitternose didn’t bother telling Regina police that he was heading west for the summer, and when a patrol car dropped by his house for a random visit, he was nowhere to be found. A few days later, those two women climbed inside his truck, completely unaware that the man behind the wheel was a known sex offender in breach of the rules.

Because of Ottawa’s obsession with privacy rights, police are not even allowed to warn the public that a registered rapist is missing. A man as dangerous as Bitternose was essentially free to violate the rules—and allegedly strike again—without the hassle of ever seeing his mug shot on a wanted poster.

Four years after the federal government unveiled the registry as a state-of-the-art crime-fighting tool—and one year after a Maclean’s investigation uncovered a litany of problems with the program—the case of Cory Bitternose is a sad reminder that the system remains horribly broken, doomed by weak legislation, faulty technology and a lack of political will. Earlier this year, the Mounties were optimistic that the many flaws would finally be fixed. According to internal RCMP documents obtained under the Access to Information Act, “a highly critical article in Maclean’s magazine” triggered a series of meetings between police, Stephen Harper’s Conservatives, and a committee of justice officials from the provinces and territories. “The RCMP has been pleased with the discussions and have seen significant consensus reached on many of these long-standing issues,” says one briefing note, sent in March to Commissioner William Elliott. “The RCMP should closely monitor the situation to ensure any momentum is not lost.”

Unfortunately, that momentum is waning. The Mounties had hoped for “remedial action before the summer break”—before Bitternose disappeared—but after a snap election and yet another minority Parliament, the sagging economy has trumped everything else on the federal agenda, including the dysfunctional sex offender registry. “It remains a priority for the RCMP,” says Pierre Nezan, the inspector in charge of the program. “But I do get the sense that we’ve lost that momentum.”

The commissioner appears equally frustrated. Maclean’s has learned that Elliott, hoping to keep the heat on his political masters, has thrown his support behind a new proposal that would see the national registry redesigned to resemble the Ontario version, which was introduced in 2001 and is widely considered the Cadillac of all sex offender registries. Unlike the national database, the Ontario registry is cutting edge, inclusion is mandatory, and police are allowed to access the system to prevent crimes—not just solve them. As Elliott was advised in a series of candid memos, the provincial database is “a much more robust law enforcement tool” and “a much more valuable investigative aid.” If a similar system were installed across Canada, says one memo, “our ability to enhance public safety would be enhanced.”

The idea is being championed by Julian Fantino, commissioner of the Ontario Provincial Police (OPP), and has the backing of senior officers from coast to coast. At its latest meeting, the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police passed a formal resolution, calling on the feds to adopt the Ontario system “as a model to maximize public safety in all of Canada’s provinces” and territories. “The national registry has come up short in a number of areas, so what we’re really saying is: we have a good model in place. Why not roll it out across the country?” Fantino says. “We don’t need to reinvent anything. What we need to do is convince the powers that be that this is not only a good thing to do, but it’s the right thing to do. It would be unconscionable to not act on this right now.”

Although Elliott voted for the resolution, getting his support required a few tweaks. At the urging of the RCMP, who are still hoping Ottawa will fix the existing system, Fantino agreed to alter the wording so the Ontario registry was proposed as “a model” for the national, and not necessarily a replacement. “Whatever works for the greater good is what we’re concerned about,” Fantino says. “I don’t care whether it’s ever referenced as the Ontario model. They can refer to it however they want, as long as it’s upgraded and made more efficient and effective.”

If Fantino gets his wish, it would be ironic. When Ontario’s program was first launched seven years ago, then-premier Mike Harris offered the software, free of charge, to his federal counterparts. But Jean Chrétien’s Liberals insisted a national registry was not worth the effort—until some of the provinces threatened to sidestep Ottawa and follow Ontario’s lead. Forced to save face, the Liberals decided to build their own program from scratch, and it has been a disaster ever since. As the RCMP makes clear in one newly released briefing note, there are “major differences” between the two systems; “law enforcement in general does not have much confidence” in the current national version.

In Ontario, registration is mandatory; every convicted groper, pedophile and child pornographer is automatically entered. Inclusion on the national registry is optional. The Crown must ask a judge for permission, and since the law took effect, barely half of all guilty offenders have been ordered to sign up. Some prosecutors even use the registry as a negotiation chip: plead guilty, and you won’t be added to the database. In one stunning case, a court recently ruled that Kwasi Poku Owusu, a Calgary man who sexually assaulted a 17-year-old girl, should be allowed to bypass the registry because he is an aspiring engineer whose “dream of following a career path” into the Alberta oil fields would make it difficult to check in with police.

From a purely technical standpoint, too, the Ontario system is far superior. Sex crimes investigators across the province can see exactly how many people in their jurisdiction are compliant (as with the national registry, offenders must sign in every year and every time they change addresses). If someone is overdue, the system automatically issues a red flag. The national database is so inferior, and so handcuffed by restrictive legislation, that the computer can’t even record when a person is scheduled to check in. Amazingly, the Mounties have been forced to create a separate system to track compliance. Some detachments actually use a Rolodex.

The numbers speak for themselves. At last count, the Ontario registry contained 8,574 names, and only 3.3 per cent were non-compliant in some way. The national rate is more than double that. Of the 19,135 registered offenders, 1,327 (6.9 per cent) are not obeying the rules—including 394 in Quebec, 346 in British Columbia and 127 in Alberta. Nunavut has the worst record, by far: 42 per cent (105 of 252) are missing.

To be fair, those stats are a slight improvement; at this time last year, the national non-compliance rate was almost eight per cent. But because the database can’t track compliance, they’re not entirely reliable. It takes days for the RCMP to cobble them together, and by the time they do, they’re outdated. In Ontario, it takes a few seconds and a few keystrokes to retrieve real-time figures. “We need our database to be a one-stop shop for us to do everything we need to do,” Nezan says. “Right now, we’ve had to devise some workarounds and some secondary systems, which you can imagine aren’t as effective or efficient. If we had the legislative amendments that would allow us to fix the database the way we want to, it would definitely enhance compliance.”

Of all the problems plaguing the national registry, one worries police most: because the legislation is riddled with privacy restrictions, officers can access the system only after a crime is committed. If a suspicious man is seen wandering around a playground, police cannot search the database for potential matches living in the area. If a child is molested, then it’s allowed. Ontario’s registry, in contrast, is used to prevent such attacks, not just investigate them after the fact. “Our job is to protect the public,” Nezan says. “And here we have a valuable repository of information that we can’t access to prevent crime. This is the thing that frustrates police the most.”

Neither registry is a magic solution. They were designed to help police locate potential suspects living near a crime scene, not keep 24-hour watch over every known sex offender. If a pedophile is determined to strike, the fact that he’s listed on a database probably isn’t going to stop him. But that is certainly no excuse for the sorry state of Canada’s registry, says Jim Stephenson, whose 11-year-old son was kidnapped and murdered by a notorious pedophile in 1988. The Ontario database is named Christopher’s Law in his son’s honour, and in the years since, Jim and his wife, Anna, have lobbied the feds to create—and now repair—the national system. “We keep thinking: ‘What is it going to take to personalize this issue again and get the Canadian public galvanized?’ ” he says. “I don’t know, other than another real tragedy. And God, I don’t want that to happen.”

Like the RCMP, the Stephensons had reason to be optimistic. As recently as October, Stockwell Day, then public safety minister, was promising to legislate mandatory inclusion and allow police to use the registry proactively. Day also scheduled a meeting with the Stephensons. But when the election writ dropped, the meeting was cancelled, and Day has since been replaced in the post by Peter Van Loan. “We basically have to start from square one again,” Stephenson says. “I’m not discouraged, but I’m disappointed.”

Van Loan did not return repeated phone calls to his office. Apparently, he isn’t saying much to the provinces, either. All registry-related discussions begin with a committee known as the Federal/Provincial/Territorial (FPT) High-Risk Offenders Working Group, which includes members of the RCMP. But after securing what the Mounties described in May as a “promise that many long-standing obstacles will be remedied,” the working group has been stalled by all the uncertainty in Ottawa. “I think we had a number of discussions last year that were quite helpful,” says Betty Ann Pottruff, a committee co-chair. “But while there may have been agreement on issues in the past, whether that agreement is still the position of the federal government, I’m just in no position to say.”

In the meantime, people like Cory Bitternose will continue to exploit the system. At this very moment, more than 100 registered but missing sex offenders have a warrant out for their arrest, yet the RCMP is not allowed to identify them. As shocking as it sounds, informing the public that those men are in breach of the law would itself be a breach of the law.

Every day, newspapers and courthouse websites publicize the latest additions to the national registry. Matthew Hughes, a former Toronto prison guard who used the Internet to meet children, was ordered onto the system this summer. So was actor Robert Smith, famous for his role in Alexander Keith’s beer commercials before being busted in a child porn sting. But if either of those men fail to check in when they’re supposed to, the public will never hear about it. “I understand exactly where you’re going with that, and it makes sense,” Nezan says. “But our position is dictated by law. We’re not taking a philosophical view that we’re not going to release it. This is what the legislation says.”

In 2007, Maclean’s filed a complaint with the information commissioner of Canada, formally requesting the names of every registered sex offender who is charged with non-compliance and wanted for arrest. The office is still considering the request. And like everything else linked to the registry, it’s not clear if a final answer will ever arrive.