The federal Adam Walsh Act was called a potential "nightmare" for Pennsylvania's adult parole and probation departments, because they are the agencies that have to register the sex offenders and maintain a watch over them, according to Tom Shea, director of Blair County's department.
But in preparation for the Dec. 20 implementation of the act, Shea has been meeting with other county officials and talking to state police, and his assessment now is that "it will be easier [to implement] than we thought."
The new act will replace the present Megan's Law registration system for sex offenders with a three-tier system in which the most serious offenders will have to report their addresses every three months to parole and probation. Others will be required to report their whereabouts every six months or once a year, depending on what offenses they have committed.
When the provisions of the act were first discussed with county parole and probation officials throughout the state, Shea believed that he and his staff would have to do background checks on the more than 3,000 parolees and probationers now being supervised by his staff.
This would have been a gargantuan task requiring many new employees, Shea said.
That task has been eliminated, he explained.
What he expects to occur now is that individuals who come under the supervision of his office after Dec. 20 will be subject to a background check. If they are found to have past sexual offenses, they will be registered and will have to comply with the reporting requirements.
That job will be tough enough, said Shea.
He said his staff will be able to obtain the fingerprints it needs at the new central booking center at the Blair County Prison, rather than having to purchase their own equipment to do fingerprinting.
After a meeting with Blair County Sheriff Mitchell Cooper and President Judge Jolene G. Kopriva, he learned other county offices will help with the background checks.
"We will help where we can and provide whatever assistance they need," Cooper said.
The county, he pointed out, has access to programs that can reveal a defendant's criminal record.
Cooper said his office can use the National Crime Information Center, the Commonwealth Law Enforcement Assistance Network and the Pennsylvania Justice Network to research criminal backgrounds of those who have been arrested.
The fingerprint system at the new booking center is also tied into networks that will display a defendant's background, said Cooper.
Finally, Shea's office will be able to contact the district attorney's staff, where they review backgrounds for sentencing purposes.
Some digging could be required to determine the actual sentence someone received for past crimes, both Cooper and Shea said. In many cases, crimes are dismissed and plea bargains are arrived at for lesser offenses when a case is resolved.
When dispositions are not evident, Shea and his staff will have to contact the county in which the arrest was listed, and that could take time.
"An awful lot of responsibility is placed on probation offices," Cooper concluded in discussing the Adam Walsh Act.
Shea said Blair County will receive some guidance on the act at the September meeting of the County's Criminal Justice Advisory Board, which will be attended by state police sexual offender law experts.
At the very least, Shea outlined, if the county parole and probation office finds that someone hasn't registered or hasn't reported as they were supposed to, the case will be referred to the state police for investigation and prosecution.
"There's a conflict between county probation [statewide] and state police as to who is to do what," said Pam Scoran, director of Cambria County's Adult Parole and Probation Office.
She said the two sides have several months to resolve their roles, but she and Shea agree that the Adam Walsh Act means more work for the county offices.
Scoran, whose office staff supervises 4,000 individuals on parole or probation, has talked to Cambria County President Judge Timothy Creany and has suggested that one probation officer be designated to handle sexual offender cases.
Shea said he is suggesting two new probation officers and a support person to help handle the new workload.
He said his officers already oversee 250 defendants each, and the county department provides the support staff for Drug Court and DUI Court.
"No way" can his present staff handle all the background checks and other duties under the Adam Walsh Act, he said.
Money for the new officers will come from the office supervisory account, not the county General Fund, Shea clarified.
Mirror Staff Writer Phil Ray is at 946-7468.