V.I. Sex Offenders Registry Not Easily Accessible to Residents

When implemented properly, federally mandated sex offender registration can be an effective tool to reduce sex crimes against children; however, the system in the U.S. Virgin Islands appears to be flawed and outdated.

Information regarding sexual offenders in the territory can be obtained by contacting the V.I. Department of Justice (VIDOJ) at 774-5666, according to the V.I. sexual offender registry Web site, www.sexualoffenders.vi.

The VIDOJ Web site does not offer information on the sexual offender registry, and there is no direct link to the registry on the V.I. Police Department (VIPD) Web site, www.vipd.gov.vi.

Months of repeated calls by St. John Tradewinds to the VIDOJ yielded no information, until, finally, a woman who answered the phone said a written request must be submitted to Attorney General Kerry Drue to obtain the list of registered sex offenders.

A written request was mailed on Monday, Jan 9. As of Friday, Jan. 13, no response had been received.

Megan’s Law Enacted in 1996
On May 17, 1996, in response to the brutal 1994 rape and murder of 7-year-old Megan Kanka, President Bill Clinton signed Megan’s Law, which was enacted to discourage sex crimes against children.

The law requires individuals convicted of sex crimes against children to register with the states, and makes their private and personal information public. The method used to do this varies by state.

A search of the Internet revealed several states maintain Web sites which list sexual offenders by name and provide their addresses and crimes. Many of these listings include photographs of the sex offenders.

Another flaw in the V.I. sexual offender registry results from the types of sex crimes that tend to be committed here.

“The vast majority of sexual assaults are by persons who are known to the victim—a family member or a close family friend,” said Dr. Iris Kern, executive director of The Safety Zone. “There’s a tremendous amount of cover-up. This is a place where victims who report sexual crimes are not particularly believed—people just ignore them.”

Perpetrators Not Being Convicted
The USVI faces problems similar to any small town when it comes to solving crimes, according to Dr. Kern.

“If the person who is being accused is a relatively prominent person in the community, and it very often is such a person, the victim simply is not believed,” said Dr. Kern. “So, we don’t have a lot of protection for young people.”

The sex offender registry faces other problems as well, said Kern.

“Two things keep the registry from functioning properly,” she said. “Relatively few sexual predators are ever convicted, and the registry hasn’t been fully staffed. The governor makes those appointments, and it hasn’t been a very active process.”

One appointee to the board overseeing the registry, Clemma Lewis, expressed frustration with the lack of progress.

“We’ve had one meeting since I was placed on the board early last year,” said Lewis, who is also co-director of the St. Croix Women’s Coalition. “I’m a little annoyed, to be honest with you, because I got appointed to the board and I was excited to put stuff into place. The board needs to be functional.”

Lewis recently made a presentation to teachers who are concerned about the sex offender registry.

“The teachers wanted to know if it’s up and running, and whether they have access to it,” she said. “I felt handicapped because I didn’t have the information.”

Registry Not Easily Accessible
Although the federal version of Megan’s Law does not regulate how sex offenders’ information is made available to the public, Internet access, which provides instant information, has become the norm across the United States.

Rhode Island is the only state that does not provide Internet access to its registry, according to www.klaaskids.org, which was last updated on July 1, 2005. While there is a Web site dedicated to the V.I. sex

ual offender registry, one cannot obtain actual information on sex offenders who are registered in the territory. Even the number of registered offenders is not revealed.

Megan’s Law is designed to protect the public from sex offenders by making known their whereabouts and other information to local residents. The Virgin Islands is not immediately forthcoming with this information, which could take more than a week to receive by mail.

The federal version of Megan’s Law authorizes, but does not require, law enforcement to release information to communities when a sex offender moves into the area.

Some state laws require door-to-door notification of sex offenders who move nearby, while other state laws do not require any form of active notification. Information regarding the Virgin Islands’ level of active notification was not immediately available.

Money Sometimes Involved
The economic status of victims in the Virgin Islands also affects the dynamic of the sex crimes that occur here.

“We have a disproportionately high rate of sexual assault and predation,” said Kern. “A lot of older men prey on young girls, and the girls respond because there is a lot of money involved. We have a tremendously high income disparity between the ‘haves and have nots,’ and sexual favors and predation is one way that disparity is addressed.”

Sexual predators do not take into account a young girl’s emotional maturity, said Dr. Kern.

“They only respond to the fact that this person has a mature body and they don’t deal with the fact that psychologically, these are still children,” she said. “A lot of men are attracted to these young girls, and the girls respond by allowing it.”

While sexual predation is an obvious problem in the Virgin Islands, the steps necessary to change the pervasiveness of this crime lie much deeper than establishing an effective sexual offender registry, according to Kern.

“In times of changing attitudes, I think we have failed abysmally,” she said. “As long as the attitudes toward women and children remain as they are in the territory, sex crimes are really hard to prevent.”

Gender discrimination may be a “residue of the legacy of slavery,” said Dr. Kern. “The only power that African-American and African-Caribbean men were allowed during times of slavery was over women and children. I think that’s compounded on the other side because it’s not exclusively a West Indian problem.”

Drug and Alcohol Abuse Involved
Dr. Kern also cites drug and alcohol abuse for lowering the inhibitions that prevent one from becoming a sexual offender.

“I think we really need to understand that egalitarian relationships are possible, and we need to value one another as human beings,” she said.

To obtain a list of sexual offenders who are registered with the VIDOJ, the public must send a written request to Attorney General Kerry Drue, 3438 Kronprindsens Gade, GERS Complex, 2nd floor, St. Thomas 00802.

St. John Tradewinds will publish a list of registered sex offenders in the territory as soon as it is obtained.