CHICAGO-An aggressive program to keep tabs on sex offenders in Illinois has slashed the number of ex-convicts who fail to register their addresses, a trend winning notice from advocates of such laws.

Only 7.8 percent of Illinois offenders or 1,372 of them were unregistered as of Dec. 1, according to Attorney General Lisa Madigan’s office. Two years ago, the rate was 14 percent.

Madigan credits the drop to a two-year-old team devoted specifically to tracking sex offenders through communication between law enforcement officials, a continually updated central registry and random checks.

Even though the state cannot be certain that addresses are completely up to date since offenders are required to check in only once a year, officials said the system is an improvement over the past, when moves were not effectively tracked following an offender’s initial registration.

“We brought everybody who is responsible and everyone is responsible for a different piece of the puzzle together. That way, we can hold everybody accountable and, when there’s a piece of that that needs to be addressed, we can respond,” Madigan said.

Members of the Illinois Sex Offender Registry Team, or I-SORT, include the attorney general and local, state and federal law enforcement agencies. The team’s primary task is to improve registration compliance and assure that the information provided on offenders including name, address, date of birth and whether an offender’s victims were younger than 18 is good.

“This is the first time I have seen an entire state create task forces to reduce registration failure,” said Laura Ahearn, executive director of Parents for Megan’s Law, a not-for-profit child advocacy organization. “I have not seen such an improvement ... as I have in Illinois.”

No national statistics on offender registration were available, but Illinois’ figure beats some other states with a large number of registered sex offenders. In California, the noncompliance rate was 21 percent as of Dec. 6, officials said, and in Texas it was 31 percent. Florida, however, reported that only 4.35 percent of its offenders were unregistered.

A total of 17,761 sex offenders live in Illinois. The registration law is meant to let neighbors, parents and school officials know if a released sex offender is living nearby.

“Law enforcement and the state have always worked hard to try to deal with sex offender registration requirements,” said Cara Smith, Madigan’s policy director. “But what we did by creating I-SORT was create a clearinghouse and a team approach.”

For example, a convicted sex offender moving from a town where he or she is registered must notify police. The offender is then given a “moving status” on the registry, and police in the new town are notified.

That police department could then check if the offender has registered and work with the state to track anyone who has failed to register.

That kind of coordination did not happen before the statewide team was created because there was no system to track offenders’ movement, Smith said.

In addition, law enforcement agencies are now encouraged to pursue offenders simply for not complying with the registration law.

Geoffrey Shank, commander of the Great Lakes Regional Fugitive Task Force, said his group, which looks for offenders of violent crimes in the Great Lakes area, did not seek out sex offenders on registration violations before I-SORT.

“We would not actively be looking for these people unless there was some other felony warrant on them. But now the attorney general has changed all that with her program,” Shank said.

In the past year, I-SORT members have conducted targeted raids and used tips from a sex offender hot line to locate noncompliant offenders. They have also publicized the state’s sex offender Web site.

By law, offenders must register annually and immediately notify the state when they move. Local police agencies also must check on offenders once a year.

Charles Onley, a researcher at the national Center for Sex Offender Management, acknowledged that relying on offenders to make annual updates means they could be long gone from their last reported address before anyone ever notices.

A new law in Illinois seeks to prevent that by requiring offenders to register every 90 days if they have been convicted in the past of failing to follow registration rules.

But the registries, even with outdated information, at least give police a starting point for investigations, he said.

“Even if we’re talking about old information, that’s more information than they had before such laws,” Onley said.

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