The process of moving when buying or renting a home can be a lengthy process, from researching neighborhoods, area schools and the cost of living.
For some, another part of finding a new home can involve checking crime rates — or the sex offender registry.
While using the sex offender registry can be as simple as entering an address and clicking a button, there are more than 80 Virginia State Police employees that work to update the list — and keep track of the people on it.
“It’s a customer service-oriented occupation,” said 1st Sgt. A.J. Puckett, who oversees the state’s sex offender investigative unit. “We’re dealing with a segment of the population that most people don’t like… or that has a stigma attached to it. They go out and do this with a purpose to try and keep everyone in compliance.”
Virginia State Code lays out the procedure for keeping track of registered sex offenders, which is how Virginia State Police, its troopers and civilian employees determine when to check in to make sure registered sex offenders are living or working where they say they are.
Currently, there are about 13,000 sex offenders registered in Virginia.
Puckett said a sex offender’s classification as violent or nonviolent and their track record of compliance with registering governs how often they need to check-in with officers. It is mandated to a minimum of twice a year, but happens sooner if a home or work location changes.
Much of the information in the registry, such as relocations or new employment, is self-reported by the offender, but the Virginia Code requires state police civilian compliance officers physically check in to ensure that person is working or living where they say they are.
In addition to in-person check-ins, state police send certified letters through the U.S. Postal Service to the addresses registered to sex offenders. To receive the letter, the person must show the mail carrier their identification. After receipt, they must sign and put their fingerprints on the letter and send it back to state police.
That letter comes through between once a year and once every 30 days, depending on the classification of the sex offender.
“We spend almost half a million dollars every year on postage,” Puckett said.
Where in Williamsburg
The Virginia State Police Sex Offender Registry allows users to look up sex offenders by zip code, city or county, address or school.
The registry allows the user to narrow down points on a map by the offender’s work, home or school address.
In Williamsburg zip codes such as 23185, 23188 and 23168, registered sex offenders are dispersed fairly evenly throughout James City County, York County and Williamsburg.
Registered houses are more abundant in more densely-populated neighborhoods and areas, including some along Pocahontas Trail and Capitol Landing Road.
Workplaces where registered sex offenders are employed vary greatly, and are also evenly dispersed throughout the region.
The Sex Offender Registry has two sections under state police: the administrative side that handles paperwork and updates the site, and the compliance side.
Puckett said there are four regions for sex offender management under state police. Hampton Roads is part of a region that encompasses the area from James City County down to Suffolk and up on the Eastern Shore.
It’s one of the smallest geographic regions for enforcement because of the popular density — and therefore, the high concentration of sex offenders.
Puckett said the Sex Offender Investigations Unit compliance officers and troopers are tasked solely with managing sex offender-related situations and cases. They do not patrol or do other police work outside of their unit.
Those employees work nights, weekends and holidays. Halloween is one of the busiest times of year for the force because officers will drive past registered houses to ensure it’s in compliance: no lights on, no holiday decor and no children going to the house.
So, what happens if a sex offender “disappears”?
If that person is not found after three physical check-ins, and a trooper cannot locate the person after a fourth visit, the state police will open an investigation into the person’s whereabouts. If they still cannot be found, the trooper will get arrest warrants and file them in the “wanted” system in case they are found during a traffic stop or other situation.
A violation of reporting requirements often results in an arrest or charges at the discretion of the local commonwealth’s attorney, Puckett said.
Puckett added he estimated there may be about 200 sex offenders arrested annually in Virginia for “disappearing,” or not checking in as required.
“We do a lot more investigations than that,” he added.
Puckett said state police have a compliance rate of more than 90 percent.
“It is self-reported, but they’re doing so because they understand the consequences,” Puckett said. “If somebody is not going to do what they need to do, there’s a very swift punishment.”