Former Leechburg police Chief Mike Diebold’s headline-grabbing release from the Westmoreland County jail two weeks ago concerned some residents who felt he shouldn’t live near three schools because he’s a registered sex offender.
Sex offenders rarely garner such attention when they get out of jail. Often, their neighbors are unaware they live near a registered sex offender.
Odds are, you do.
As of Friday afternoon, there were 172 registered sex offenders living across the Alle-Kiski Valley’s 33 municipalities — roughly one for every 764 residents. Ten of the offenders were classified as sexually violent predators, according to Pennsylvania’s Megan’s Law registry.
The Valley’s rate of registered sex offenders is higher than rates for Westmoreland (one offender for every 769 residents), Allegheny (one for every 770 residents) and Armstrong (one for every 811 residents) counties as a whole.
But it’s lower than rates for Pennsylvania (one for every 613 residents) and the United States (one for every 397 residents), according to state and federal data.
In all, the three Alle-Kiski Valley counties had nearly 2,100 registered sex offenders.
“There are so many people on (the) Megan’s Law (registry). It’s disgusting,” Shannon Hollenbaugh, 34, said as she walked her dog along Brackenridge’s Atlantic Avenue as she waited for her children to get out of the Highlands Early Childhood Center.
One registered sex offender lives within a block of the Highlands school. Brackenridge, a half-square-mile community of about 3,300 people, had three registered sex offenders in all, according to the registry.
In our communities
The Valley’s 10 sexually violent predators are spread across seven communities. Vandergrift had the most of any community with three, Arnold had two and Cheswick, Kiski Township, Lower Burrell, New Kensington and West Deer had one apiece, the registry showed.
New Kensington, the Valley’s most populous community with more than 13,000 residents, had the most registered sex offenders with 32, while neighboring Arnold had the second most with 27, according to the registry.
That gave Arnold, a community of about 5,200 people, one registered sex offender for every 191 residents — the highest rate in the Valley.
Combined, New Kensington and Arnold — an area of about 5 square miles — had one-third of the Valley’s registered sex offenders.
New Kensington Mayor Tom Guzzo said he isn’t certain why so many registered sex offenders call the city home, but factors could include access to public transportation, affordable housing, various public services and jobs. Westmoreland County Adult Probation has a branch office there.
“Our police chief is having his officers check on these people to make sure we don’t have problems,” Guzzo said.
Arnold Mayor Karen Peconi declined to comment.
In Vandergrift, which had 15 registered sex offenders along with the three sexually violent predators, police Chief Joe Caporali said he wondered why the borough had one of the Valley’s highest rates of sex offenders but added, “We haven’t had any problems (with offenders) that we are aware of … (and) there has never been any sign of a protest against someone moving in.”
Registry a ‘valuable tool’
Information about sex offenders is available online at www.pameganslaw.state.pa.us, a state police-maintained website that had 2.8 million visitors and 473 million page views in 2017.
In addition to looking up information about registered sex offenders, users can submit tips about sex offenders to police or sign up to receive email alerts when a sex offender moves into their neighborhood.
“The Megan’s Law registry is a valuable tool to keep the public informed about sexual offenders in their communities,” said Lt. Col. Robert Evanchik, the acting state police commissioner. “The Pennsylvania State Police is committed to providing information on registered sex offenders so that residents can make personal safety decisions as they deem appropriate.”
Knowing the basics of how the state classifies sex offenders helps.
Sex offenders are grouped into one of several classifications after being evaluated by the state’s Sexual Offenders Assessment Board. Before 2012, offenders were deemed either 10-year or lifetime registrants based on the seriousness of their crimes. Since, they’ve been classified as tier I, II or III offenders, with the latter group including those who committed the most serious sex crimes.
Tier III offenders are required to check in with authorities once every three months for life, while tier I offenders must do so once a year for 15 years. During check-ins, offenders get their photos taken and provide information including where they live and work and what car they drive. That information, along with physical descriptions and details about their criminal record, are included in the online registry.
Separately, a court can designate a registered sex offender as a sexually violent predator. They’re required to check in quarterly with authorities and get counseling for life, and police must notify neighbors when they move into a neighborhood. The same rules apply to people designated as sexually violent delinquent children.
In a strange quirk, a state police database appeared to show Friday that all 53 of the state’s sexually violent delinquent children live in Westmoreland County. That’s because Westmoreland is home to Torrance State Hospital, where sexually violent delinquent children are treated, according to state police.
While Megan’s Law requires police to notify neighbors when a sex offender moves into their neighborhood, it doesn’t include any stipulations on where a sex offender can live. Only a court can do that.
“About six years ago, we were told (a sexually violent predator) was there. We sometimes see him and there’s not a problem,” said Karen Lay, who lives on Vandergrift’s Walnut Street, where a sexually violent predator resides.
People won’t be notified by police if they move into a home, get a job or send children to a school in a neighborhood where a sexually violent predator already lives.
“I sure would have liked to have known,” said Jaerin Bracy, who lives near Brackenridge’s Atlantic Avenue. “I’ve lived here for nine or 10 years, and I haven’t been notified.”
Some experts question whether Megan’s Law measures such as sex-offender registries and neighbor notifications reduce sex crimes and recidivism and make communities safer.
Carol Hughes, a psychologist from Greensburg who conducts assessments for the state’s Sexual Offenders Assessment Board, added: “People get concerned about whoever is on that website, but they aren’t necessarily as vigilant or on the lookout for the person they don’t know about, people who aren’t listed. … Most people have a gut reaction whenever sex is mentioned, but most people on the list won’t re-offend.”
Bill O’Leary, a forensic therapist from New York’s Long Island, cited Justice Bureau statistics that show recidivism rates for sex offenders hover around 5 percent and said “95 percent of the problem is perpetrated by individuals not known as sex offenders.”
O’Leary said Megan’s Law “succeeds in keeping a spotlight on a convicted sexual offender but has not shown an impact on recidivism rates. Since 95 percent of sexual crimes (are) committed by someone not on the registry, Megan’s Law would not have played a part in their crimes either way.
“One of the only possibilities would be if it was a deterrent to someone, but that would be very difficult to measure.”
Chuck Biedka is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Tom Fontaine is senior news editor at the Tribune-Review.