Yongsan finds overseas gap in sex offender notification process
YONGSAN GARRISON, South Korea — A decade ago, federal legislation made it mandatory for states to create public registries of people convicted of sexual crimes.
Known as Megan’s Law, it also required authorities to notify the public of the whereabouts of people convicted of sex crimes.
Yet “active notification” — a mailed postcard or police officers knocking on doors in neighborhoods where registered offenders have moved — is not a federal requirement, advocacy groups and lawyers say. The federal law left it up to the states to create their own standards about when, if ever, to notify residents that an offender has moved to town.
That leaves overseas military communities, which are outside state jurisdictions, in limbo about how or even whether notification should occur when a sexual offender lives on base. Most experts, in fact, say they’ve never even encountered the issue.
“This is a good question,” Laura Ahearn told Stars and Stripes. “I’d have to research it,” said Ahearn, director of Parents for Megan’s Law, an advocacy group in New York that promotes laws to protect children.
But local commanders and the community at Yongsan Garrison in Seoul are dealing with the question now, since residents recently discovered that a convicted sex offender who had met his obligation to register is living among them. No one seems to have an immediate answer.
The situation is so unique — and the guidance so murky — that it was a parent instead of a military authority who ended up notifying the on-base school system that Carlton Discavage was living in military family housing in Seoul.
Discavage, 35, is a registered offender who pleaded guilty in 2003 to felony indecent solicitation of a child, according to the Justice Department’s national registry.
Police charged him with arranging a sexual rendezvous with what he thought was a 15-year-old girl at an Illinois mall. The girl turned out to be an undercover cop, according to a statement from the family.
“In my husband’s case, his actions involved a fair degree of ignorance of the law as well as a good amount of poor judgment,” Army Maj. Ramona Discavage said in a written statement provided to Stars and Stripes through the 8th U.S. Army’s public affairs office. The couple declined to be interviewed for this story.
Discavage said her husband chatted online suggestively with a person identified as a 15-year-old, thinking it was a game. He thought he was playing part of the joke when he accepted an invitation to meet the girl at the mall, Discavage wrote.
“He had failed in his responsibility as an adult to avoid any inappropriate conversation with someone who could, in fact, have been a minor,” Discavage stated.
Carlton Discavage’s guilty plea called for 70 days in jail with work release privileges and registration as a sex offender for 10 years. He is registered in the national database but the information shown for him Wednesday puts his address at Fort Leavenworth, Kan., not Yongsan Garrison, Seoul.
Rumors begin flying
A few weeks ago, a family who used to live at Fort Leavenworth recognized Discavage on Yongsan. As can happen in a small military community, rumors began flying, neighbors say.
People began wondering about school outings, soccer practice and life in a community where playgrounds are amid townhouse dwellings. They also wondered about the nature of Discavage’s conviction, and whether the command was remiss in allowing him to live on base, according to Army officers interviewed for this story.
“It just seems kind of odd,” said Maj. Richard Lewis, who has lived on Yongsan for two years and has five children.
Noting that the military screens families before moving them abroad to ensure medical needs can be met, he said, “If you are able to be discriminating on that, that same thing should apply when it comes to this.”
As the news spread, Yongsan residents and officials began making phone calls.
A parent who knew of Discavage’s conviction told the elementary school principal on Yongsan about the situation a couple of weeks ago. It was the first notice the school system received, said Warren Tobin, chief of staff for the Department of Defense Dependents School district in Korea. Tobin said he called Area II Support Activity for confirmation.
When Capt. Michael Hodgin heard the rumors, he contacted the provost marshal’s office. He was told a sex offender was living on base and that person was legally registered but the police declined to provide the person’s name or address.
Hodgin kept making calls to inquire about the notification policy for overseas bases. He was told the local command has no policy about how to respond in this situation.
“What?” was Hodgin’s response. “There’s no policy on sexual predators in our neighborhoods?”
Apparently so, at first glance.
“This is a new issue for the command here in Korea and is not addressed specifically in Department of Defense or Army regulations that address registration of sex offenders in overseas areas,” Steve Davis, the public affairs officer for Yongsan’s installation commander, wrote in response to questions about the policy. “Moreover, federal and state sex offender registration laws do not apply to military installations overseas.”
A spokesman for the Pentagon said last week that local installation commanders determine who can live on base. The office of Col. Ron Stephens, the Area II commander who oversees Yongsan, and U.S. Forces Korea officials said they were studying whether a local policy should be established.
A spokesman for the Justice Department said it is up to local military officials to provide proper information to update the database. As of Wednesday, that hadn’t happened.
Some, such as Lewis, find the legal requirements and uncertainties hard to swallow.
“Shouldn’t we have been notified somehow by the installation?” he asked.
But automatic notification through Megan’s law, and the more recent sex offender law signed by President Bush this summer, is a sort of urban myth, according to legal experts.
“People have gotten too used to the idea the information should be delivered to them,” said Jack King of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers.
Hodgin said he planned to raise the issue at this week’s Army Family Action Plan meeting, an annual three-day meeting that develops proposals for changes in installation rules and facilities.
Also this week, school officials met with Area II staff to discuss a more streamlined way to process background checks for volunteers at schools, youth activities and other community events, Tobin said.
No one in the Yongsan community is accusing Discavage of any misconduct, neighbors said. But not knowing how the process should work has left everyone to speculate, and speculation causes rumors and exaggerations, Hodgin and Lewis said.
“I don’t think it’s fair for him,” Lewis said of the uncertainties.
Discavage, for his part, has done his due diligence. His legal case in Illinois is closed, and he has told legal authorities about his latest move. According to Illinois law, he must continue to notify authorities of his whereabouts until 2013.
Julia Aimen, an Illinois defense attorney who represents clients charged with sexual crimes, said she believes he’s done his part under the law.
“I believe if he’s registered (at Yongsan), he’s met his burdens,” she said.
Carlton Discavage and his wife, Army Maj. Ramona Discavage, declined an interview with Stars and Stripes for today’s story. Instead, Maj. Discavage provided a written statement on behalf of her family through the 8th U.S. Army’s public affairs office.
Following are excerpts:
“Thank you for taking the time to contact my husband and I about the concerns that have been presented to you by individuals in the community. We have always considered it a priority to disclose our history to, one, those that we find ourselves interacting with on a regular basis, as well as, two, the parents of any child that our children make friends with.
“In my husband’s case, his actions involved a fair degree of ignorance of the law as well as a good amount of poor judgment. Being overly confident in his understanding of the online-chat life, he was used to a lot of game playing and trash talking. Of the people he chatted with that day (in 2003), one of them identified herself as a 15-year-old girl.
“When this person began talking suggestively, he made the mistake of thinking that it could be treated like a game and be legally safe so long as he didn’t commit to any solicitation. As far as he was concerned at the time, this 15-year-old girl could have just as likely been a police officer, which was the case, or someone playing a joke. The way to prove whether someone was playing a joke was to ask this person to meet in order to prove or disprove his or her identity.
“What was made clear to my husband by legal council, after the arrest, was that by leaving the house, he technically broke the law. Also whether illegal or not, he had failed in his responsibility as an adult to avoid any inappropriate conversation with someone who could, in fact, have been a minor. Knowing this, he made the decision not to contest the charge and accept his responsibilities. Otherwise he thought he could have wasted the court’s time, dragged out the daily stress our family was under, and incurred further penalties.
“The key point for both my husband and I is the protection of our children. As adults, we understand we live with the choices we make. Our children are innocents in this and we do our best to ensure that they can grow up in a happy home, interacting freely with the friends they make. This concept is where the notification routine we developed originated.
“There is not one incident that I can recall, in every community we’ve lived in, where the reception of our efforts was not positive. Those we’ve disclosed to were thankful for the time and care we took to help them understand the situation.”
— Teri Weaver
In 1996, President Clinton signed legislation that became known as Megan’s Law, an act requiring all states to establish registration programs for people convicted of sexual offenses.
Some states, such as New Jersey, where 7-year-old Megan Nichol Kanka was raped and murdered in the early 1980s, already had similar laws in place. So the 1996 federal law left it up to each state to run its own registry and decide how to notify the public about who lived in their community.
Since then, the laws from state to state have varied widely, making it mandatory for some people to register after a conviction of exposure, while others set notification requirements that included newspaper printings and mass mailings, lawyers in the field say.
Some states established various levels of crimes that would trigger notification. A lesser crime, for instance, might require the offender to register but not require public notification, whereas a violent offense might require local authorities to notify neighbors.
This summer, President Bush signed a new law meant to strengthen Megan’s law and dealing with other issues involving crimes against children, such as using the Internet to meet minors.
That law, known as the Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act, is meant to standardize the registration information collected by the states, increase that information to include employment and expand notification procedures.
It remains unclear, however, whether the new law specifically addresses overseas military bases, experts said in interviews with Stars and Stripes.
— Teri Weaver