The sex offender registry—and your province - Macleans.ca

The sex offender registry—and your province

Each province and territory is struggling to maintain Canada’s dysfunctional sex offender registry

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A recent Maclean’s investigation uncovered a long list of serious flaws in Canada’s three-year-old sex offender registry. Hundreds of rapists and pedophiles are missing. Hundreds more were never added to the system in the first place. In this web exclusive, macleans.ca provides a region-by-region breakdown of all the shocking problems—and all the warnings that the federal government continues to ignore. (Click here for a timeline of the registry and its embarrassing state.)

Canada’s national sex offender registry was created for one reason: to help police locate potential suspects. If a child goes missing, investigators can search the database for known pedophiles who live in the surrounding postal codes. If a stranger rapes a woman, police can input her attacker’s description and scan for matches. “What the registry does is eliminate the three months it used to take to find out what offenders live in the neighbourhood,” says Glenn Woods, a retired RCMP officer who helped build the system. 

That’s true. The database has been searched hundreds of times, and although the registry has yet to solve a single crime, the Mounties believe it’s only a matter of time. At the very least, the registry is a starting point for detectives with no other leads.

Of course, a sex offender registry is only as effective as it is accurate—and Canada’s system is certainly not complete. For one thing, it was not designed to be retroactive. Thousands of known molesters and other loathsome criminals were never added to the system in the first place, and even today, barely half of all convicted offenders end up on the registry. Amazingly, inclusion isn’t mandatory. In fact, the RCMP can barely keep track of those offenders who are ordered to comply. According to the latest statistics, 16,295 names appear on the system. Of those, 1,270 (eight per cent) are considered non-compliant in some way. Some haven’t checked in every year, as required. Others have been missing for months. Compliance rates vary from coast to coast. Simply put, some provinces and territories are better than others when it comes to keeping tabs on registered sex offenders. But no jurisdiction is perfect. According to hundreds of pages of internal government documents, obtained by Maclean’s under the Access to Information Act, each region is struggling to make the system work.

ONTARIO
Registered sex offenders: 8,229
Non-compliant offenders: 317 (4%)

Any discussion about the national sex offender registry must begin in Ontario, the home of Canada’s first-ever registry. Launched in 2001, the provincial database is an impressive piece of technology. Every convicted sex offender in Ontario is automatically added to the system, and investigators across the province can log on and see exactly how many people in their region are following the rules. Unlike the national version, which can’t track compliance, if an Ontario offender fails to check in on time, the system will issue an automatic red flag. In Toronto, for example, the city’s sex crimes unit includes a group of officers who do nothing else but monitor the whereabouts of registered sex offenders. “Because I’m obsessed with the number, the first thing I do every day is log onto the system and see where our number is at,” says Det.-Const. Brian James, a member of that unit (James has since transferred to another division).

When the Ontario system was unveiled, Premier Mike Harris was so impressed that he offered the software to the feds, free of charge. Jean Chrétien was prime minister at the time, but his Liberals weren’t interested. First they insisted that Canada doesn’t need a national sex offender registry. Then, under pressure in the House of Commons, they promised to upgrade CPIC, the central police computer that contains everyone’s criminal record. And then—when other provinces stepped in to accept Harris’s offer—Lawrence MacAulay, the federal Solicitor-General at the time, announced a complete reversal in policy. Ottawa, he said, is going to build its own registry. “Ontario pushed them into it,” says Terry Nicholls, a retired OPP staff sergeant who ran the provincial registry. “It was very clearly a knee-jerk reaction. So out of the blue, the feds announced they would build their own. There was no foresight. There was no database on the drawing board. Nothing.”

Instead of borrowing Ontario’s software. Ottawa designed its own distinct database—a trickle-down operation in which the bulk of the costs, and the work, actually falls on the provinces and territories. Each of the 13 regions houses a central registry office run by the RCMP, except in Ontario (the OPP is in charge) and Quebec (Sûreté du Québec). It is up to those offices to ensure the compliance of local sex offenders. In Ontario, however, taxpayers are now on the hook for two separate registries—all because the federal Liberals would not admit that a province, especially one run by a Conservative, had developed a superior system. Three years later, the result has been a long list of technical glitches and bad feelings. In October, when registry officials from every province and territory met for an annual meeting, nobody from Ontario showed up.

Of all the problems with the national registry, nothing bothers Ontario more than the discretionary inclusion rule. Consider this fact: since the day the national system was unveiled, 3,331 people have been automatically added to the Ontario registry (remember, inclusion is mandatory on the provinicial). During that same span, only 1,635—fewer than half—were ordered onto the national registry. The rest fell through the cracks, either because the Crown didn’t ask, or the judge refused. “If those people left Ontario, they wouldn’t have to report to anyone,” says Det.-Sgt. Rick Harrington, an OPP officer who works with both registries. “I’m not against the national registry. It’s just unfortunate that the discrepancy in how we operate leaves some aside.”

BRITISH COLUMBIA
Registered sex offenders: 1,469
Non-compliant offenders: 134 (9%)

The national registry was not designed to be completely retroactive. As of Dec. 15, 2004 (when the system went live) anyone listed on the Ontario version, and anyone else currently serving a sentence for a sex crime, was ordered to comply. The decision meant that thousands of known pedophiles and rapists were not included because they had finished serving their sentences by December 2004. Rational or not, the decision still left police with a monumental task. They had to serve each and every qualified offender—more than 10,500 people—with a written notice to comply (known as a Form 53). In B.C., the Form 53 process proved to a massive undertaking. Many offenders couldn’t be located, and many others couldn’t be bothered to check in. “Letters of Reminder to register were sent to approximately 250 retrospective offenders who were approaching their reporting deadline,” reads one internal report, written in 2006. “Many were returned unopened/non-deliverable.”
That was not the only frustration. In Prince George, local prosecutors refused to charge three retrospective sex offenders with non-compliance because the written notice to comply didn’t specify the exact location of the registry centre. Police were stunned. According to the latest provincial update, written three months ago, the registry centre in B.C. is also still struggling to convince frontline officers to use the database for investigations. The system is off-limits to most police officers, so all queries must be forwarded to the provincial registry centre. However, most detectives feel the same way: If I can’t access the system myself, what good is it? According to that 2006 internal report: “So far this year, 24 requests for NSOR queries have been done. In general, requests for queries are at a minimum as most detachments/agencies are, as yet, unaware of what we can offer.”

ALBERTA
Registered sex offenders: 1,251
Non-compliant offenders: 201 (16%)

Behind closed doors, Alberta has been more than vocal about the many problems plaguing the national sex offender registry. The biggest problem, officials say, is that the database cannot record an offender’s next expected reporting date. That must be done separately—on a Rolodex, for example, or on a wall calendar. In other words, the system cannot tell the RCMP when people are scheduled to register, and when they’ve failed to show up. “No automation leaves a huge margin for error,” says Paige Eisworth, the former acting coordinator of the Alberta registry centre.

Like many jurisdictions, Alberta also has a hard time conducting compliance checks. Not only do frontline officers not have access to the system, police throughout the province don’t always have the time see if sex offenders are living where they say they are. “We have a sex offender population that requires management,” Eisworth says. “And that requires police officers in the communities to go out and investigate and knock on doors. But there has been no allowance or no increase in resources.”

SASKATCHEWAN
Registered sex offenders: 571
Non-compliant offenders: 26 (5%)

Since day one, RCMP officers in Saskatchewan have made it a top priority to monitor compliance—and charge those offenders who aren’t following the rules. Gary McLennan, the Mountie who launched the registry in Saskatchewan, puts it this way: “There are certain provinces that have to do a lot more with regards to it, but that’s up to them to say that.” In 2006, the Saskatchewan registry centre wrote an update to headquarters: “The vast majority of Form 53s are not complying and it is very difficult to give a number of non-compliance investigations conducted in 2006 as we are doing some form of investigation on basically every SO [sex offender]. We have some SOs that have been non-compliant for 3-5 months and we were going to lay a charge and they showed up and registered…Under the present interpretation of compliance we would have to say we are 93% compliant, but that statistic is very skewed and definitely does not speak to the work that is required to get SOs to be compliant.”

The report also expresses “serious concerns” about the fact that many judges aren’t ordering convicted sex offenders onto the registry (Form 52s). “We have had only 90 Form 52s issued thus far in 2006 and our reviews indicate that we should be receiving in excess of 200 Form 52s per year.” At last count, 74 offenders in Saskatchewan have been charged with non-compliance—the highest of any province, by far.

MANITOBA
Registered sex offenders: 696
Non-compliant offenders: 83 (12%)

In Manitoba, the registry is maintained by the province’s Integrated High Risk Sex Offender Unit, a joint task force comprised of RCMP and Winnipeg Police. Although each offender is required to register every year and every time they move, the task force tries to conduct random door knocks at least once a year, ensuring that offenders are actually living where they say they are. “The onus is on the accused to report,” says Dave McInnis, the RCMP sergeant in charge of the unit. “It’s not our job to track these guys down, but we do that in the interest of facilitation. The compliance part of the mandate is extremely important. Without it, there is no sense having a database.”

But resources are stretched thin, and as the list of registered sex offenders continues to grow, it will become increasingly difficult to check on every single person. “Coupled with the demands of the sex offender database, validation and compliance checks, we do find that we likely do not have enough resources to do the job and we are in year two only of the Act with our file numbers increasing,” reads one internal report.

Like all provinces and territories, Manitoba is also handcuffed by the fact that the computer itself cannot track compliance. The legislation that created the registry does not allow the Mounties to record an offender’s next expected registration date, so staff is forced to use a cue card system to keep track of compliance. For the most part, the system is working in Winnipeg, where the task force is able keep tabs on offenders living in the city. But in the rural regions of the province, compliance is much harder to maintain. Because frontline officers are not allowed to access the system, the task force must send out requests to rural detachments, asking local officers to check on certain offenders. “For the most part the detachments have been very good,” reads another internal report, “but some follow up has been needed.”

At last count, there are approximately 20 active arrest warrants for Manitoba residents wanted for breaching the sex offender registry. Some have been missing for months. But the RCMP refuses to release their names to the public—for privacy reasons.

QUEBEC
Registered sex offenders: 2,554
Non-compliant offenders: 480 (19%)

In Quebec, the national sex offender registry is run by the provincial police force, the Sûreté du Québec. The latest statistics reveal that of anywhere in Canada, Quebec has the highest rate of non-compliance. Almost one in five registered sex offenders is non-compliant in some way.

NEW BRUNSWICK
Registered sex offenders: 424
Non-compliant offenders: 5 (1%)

When the registry launched, officers in New Brunswick filled out 230 Form 53s, ordering retrospective offenders to comply. About a dozen (five per cent) couldn’t be located. “That could mean anything,” says Cpl. Dave Ward, the director of the provincial centre. “They could have been in another province. They could have died. I know there was one instance where the fellow was in his 90s and permanently in a seniors’ home, so the decision was made not to proceed with him.”

Overall, compliance rates in New Brunswick are relatively high. Last year, Ward and his staff implemented a system of random checks that will ensure each offender is visited by police six months after he registers. Every month, Ward contacts local police jurisdictions and forwards a list of offenders whose addresses need to be verified. Unfortunately, not every police force can spare the officers. Between May and September 2007, Ward sent 156 compliance check requests to various detachments across the province. Only 59 (38 per cent) were actually completed.

In a recent update to headquarters, Ward summed up the problem this way: “The District Commander of the district with the greatest percentage of clients living in their area does not support them being done at this time, due to lack of resources (personnel).” District commanders, he continued, “will have to receive the message from Ottawa on the importance of conducting [compliance checks and address verifications] if we expect to receive support.”

PRINCE EDWARD ISLAND
Registered sex offenders: 53
Non-compliant offenders: 0 (0%)

PEI is the only province to boast a perfect compliance rate. A single RCMP officer, Cpl. June Ramsay, is in charge of keeping an eye on the province’s registered sex offenders. “To date all subjects are in compliance and no problems have surfaced in this area,” she wrote in a recent update. The only problem, she said, relates to Form 52s. When a judge orders an offender to comply, the Crown attorney doesn’t always forward the approved Form 52 to the registry centre. “There have been times when the documents sit at the court and copies are not forwarded to this office, subsequently I don’t even know they were ordered,” Ramsay wrote.

NOVA SCOTIA
Registered sex offenders: 407
Non-compliant offenders: 4 (1%)

Like many regions, Nova Scotia is just now beginning to conduct random compliance checks. If the early results are any indication, not everyone is living where they say they are. Of the 27 address verifications conducted in Halifax in September, six were incorrect. Two of those offenders are now under criminal investigation for non-compliance. “Through the address verification process, it has been noted that many persons have not fully understood their legal obligations, although it had been previously explained to them upon registration,” according to Nova Scotia’s latest update submitted to headquarters. “Literacy and comprehension levels varied considerably and many registrants appreciated the time spent re-explaining the process.”

NEWFOUNDLAND AND LABRADOR
Registered sex offenders: 299
Non-compliant offenders: 3 (1%)

One of the reasons why the province’s compliance rate is so high is that police in the region conduct random compliance checks “on a very limited basis.” Because the registry is essentially an honour system, dependent on the goodwill of convicted criminals, there is nothing stopping a person from telling police he lives at one address, then living somewhere else until the law comes knocking. As in Halifax, more compliance checks will almost certainly reveal a higher non-compliance rate.

YUKON TERRITORIES
Registered sex offenders: 32
Non-compliant offenders: 7 (22%)

RCMP officers in Yukon are facing the same problem as Mounties across the country: the Correctional Service of Canada (CSC) refuses to tell registry officials when federal inmates are released. That means the registry centres have no idea when hundreds of dangerous criminals are supposed to show up and register. Despite repeated requests, CSC insists it does not have the legal authority to share that information. “Communication with our Territorial Corrections has declined,” reads the latest update from the region. “We are not able to obtain ‘notification of release’ of an offender.”

NORTHWEST TERRITORIES
Registered sex offenders: 89
Non-compliant offenders: 6 (7%)

Tracking compliance in such a remote area is not an easy task. As Cpl. Laurie Smith wrote in her latest update to headquarters: “It is sometimes difficult to do compliance checks in the settlements of the NWT when they are not policed on a regular basis, or the offender lives on the land.” Currently, police are looking for one missing sex offender wanted for non-compliance; three others are under investigation, and charges are pending. Not surprisingly, the Correctional Service of Canada is also hesitant to share information. “The members I have dealt with are really good but sometimes the sharing of information is seen as one-way,” Smith wrote.

NUNAVUT
Registered sex offenders: 221
Non-compliant offenders: 4 (2%)

Nunavut does not conduct regular compliance checks. In fact, officers there prefer to issue reminder notices to overdue offenders rather than charge them with non-compliance. Form 52s are also a problem. Prosecutors either forget to ask for them, or ask for them in cases when a repeat offender is already ordered to comply. “As Nunavut is a limited duration post for most RCMP members and other government officials, we have a high turnover in DOJ [Department of Justice] and RCMP personnel,” reads the latest update, written in November 2007. “This fact, compiled with an extensive case load that our DOJ is facing, leads to missed orders and 2nd orders being issued