NEW YORK – Lawmakers on Capitol Hill are reviving their efforts to create a national sex offender database after a recent spate of child kidnappings.
Cases such as those of Jessica Lunsford (search), Jetseta Gage (search) and Dru Sjodin (search) caused outcries in communities whose residents said they needed ways to be better informed when convicted sex offenders move into their neighborhoods. And lawmakers are reacting, even after two more cases of missing girls emerged on Thursday.
Sen. Byron Dorgan (search) reintroduced his bill to create a national sex offender database. The North Dakota Democrat's bill is named "Dru's Law" after Sjodin, a college student who was abducted last fall from a North Dakota parking lot and murdered by convicted sex offender Alfonso Rodriguez Jr (search).
Rodriguez, who was released from prison in neighboring Minnesota just six months before Sjodin disappeared, lived just across the border from Grand Forks, N.D. Lawmakers argue that had there been a national database, North Dakotans who checked their state’s registry of sexual offenders might have known a violent sex offender was living nearby.
"Sex offenders don’t stop at state lines. Neither should sex offender registries," Dorgan said Thursday. "We need to close a dangerous loophole that currently leaves our communities and our children at risk."
"This is going to be a big help. We need to do something and we need to act really quickly," Jessica Lunsford's father, Mark Lunsford, told FOX News on Thursday.
Sex Offenders So Close to Home
In the case of 10-year-old Jetseta Gage of Cedar Rapids, Iowa, police charged convicted sex offender and family acquaintance Roger Paul Bentley with her kidnapping and slaying.
Nine-year-old Jessica Lunsford disappeared from her Florida home on Feb. 23. Shortly thereafter, authorities say John Evander Couey, a 46-year-old convicted sex offender, confessed to her kidnapping, rape and murder. Couey was living within eyeshot of the Lunsford home and also briefly worked as a mason's assistant at Jessica's school.
Mark Lunsford spoke to FOX News on Thursday from south of Tampa, where he was helping search for Sarah Michelle Lunde (search), a 13-year-old who disappeared over the weekend from her family's mobile home in Ruskin, Fla. Officials questioned David Onstott, a convicted sex offender who once had a relationship with the girl's mother and suddenly reappeared at the family's home the day the teen disappeared. As of Thursday afternoon, police had not yet called him a suspect in Lunde's disappearance.
According to Megan's Law (search), which requires all 50 states to register sex offenders but leaves the details up to the individual states, the burden to register belongs to the offenders. They also are required to alert local officials when they move. Sex offender registries, categorized by state, are available online and provide basic information and photographs of those in the database.
However, problems arise not only when offenders don't alert local authorities about their whereabouts but also when community members in border towns aren't aware of offenders who are nearby but outside their local police department's jurisdiction.
"There's no one central place you can go. It doesn't do you a lot of good to sit in Grand Forks and look at the registry and just see people west of the river in your town because people east of your town can also be a threat," Dorgan spokesman Barry Piatt told FOXNews.com
Dorgan's bill would establish a national sex offender registry database that the public could access over the Internet and would require stringent monitoring of those offenders deemed "high risk" — defined as those who may strike again once released from prison. Similar legislation passed the Senate late in last year's session. The House did not act on it before adjourning.
In the Sjodin case, for example, Rodriguez was considered "high risk" and "he received absolutely zero supervision," Piatt said.
Dorgan's bill would allow people to type in their zip code and look up offenders within a certain number of miles, no matter what the town or county. The legislation could get reviewed again by the Senate shortly because it has the support of Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter, R-Pa., Piatt said.
"That's obviously a big boost" for the bill's prospects, he said.
Meanwhile, a bill sponsored in the House by Rep. Paul Gillmor, R-Ohio, is also pending. It is similar to Dorgan's and additionally calls on state officials to be aware of the upcoming release of sexually violent or "high risk" predators. It orders states to monitor intensively for at least a year anyone who has been unconditionally released by the state. States that fail to live up to their obligations may be cut off from 25 percent of certain federal crime-fighting funds.
Gillmor spokesman Brad Mascho said the recent missing-child and murder cases "are going to add some increased vigor into how quickly [lawmakers] go after this.
"The bill itself just makes good sense," Mascho said. "The resources are already out there — all the police departments already report to an FBI database ... it's just a matter of making it publicly available to people so you can go on your own computer to start tracking."
Mascho noted that up until a few years ago, Ohio's sex offender databases were organized by the state's counties. Much of Gillmor's district, however, abuts Indiana and Michigan, "where you can have a sex offender living across the street but you wouldn't know it.
"It's just one more way to empower people to track what's going on their own neighborhood," Mascho said.
Offenders Who 'Shouldn't Be Out There'
White House spokesman Scott McClellan said Thursday that the executive branch doesn't have any suggestions currently on plans to better track sexual predators, but the administration is keeping an eye on developments relating to murders like Lunsford's.
"I think all of us were horrified by that incident. It was just a terrible tragedy. And I don't think anyone can imagine how someone could do something like that, particularly to an innocent child. ... And we are always looking at ways to make sure we're doing everything we can to protect our communities and protect our children," he said.
McClellan noted that President Bush has made the Amber Alert a high priority in his administration. Amber Alerts are issued once authorities determine that a victim is in danger. Police must have a suspect and vehicle description of the potential abductor before issuing the alert. Information on the suspect and vehicle is then sent out to local media outlets and information is posted along major highways.
"That has been a great success in being able to track people who prey on children," McClellan said.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., told FOX News on Thursday that she agreed that the "Amber Alert has been amazingly successful," but added that Lunde's disappearance, the fourth missing girl in such a short period of time, "points out a big problem and we need to take a look at it. There are clearly people out there who shouldn't be out there and we need to find out why."
Feinstein said the Lunsford case highlighted the need to give area residents more notice if a predator moves into their neighborhood.
"Here was a major sex offender, a predator right across the street and here was a small child living across the street and they had no notice," Feinstein said. "I think we ought to take a look at that. It seems to me the people in the vicinity should have some notice."
Feinstein said that the idea of telling residents ahead of time that an offender is moving to their area is controversial because no one wants such a person in their community. "Nonetheless, I think you're entitled to protect yourself and the only way to protect yourself is with knowledge," she said.