JACKI LYDEN, HOST:
Let's stick with crime and punishment for a minute. A new law in New York is taking a controversial approach to monitoring sex offenders. In Suffolk County, Long Island, the job of monitoring has been given to a victims' advocacy group. From member station WSHU in Fairfield, Connecticut, Charles Lane has more.
CHARLES LANE, BYLINE: Troy Wallace is 42. He has a shaved head and can bench more than 400 pounds. He has two kids and has been married for 18 years. One day last spring, he met the people that he calls the trackers.
TROY WALLACE: I went and got coffee, and they pull up. It was a grey sedan, probably a Crown Victoria. They weren't law enforcement, but they had like a computer in the car.
LANE: Two guys, a Crown Vic, asking questions.
WALLACE: What's my name? I refused to give my name. I just continued to walk because I know the law that I don't have to give my name.
LANE: Wallace crossed the street and waited. And so did the trackers.
WALLACE: And then they left. So then I made a couple calls. I said: Yeah, I believe I was encountered by the trackers, and, you know, just putting, you know, other people on alert.
LANE: The other people, like Wallace, are registered sex offenders. The trackers are civilian employees for a nonprofit getting close to a million dollars a year to implement a get-tough-on-sex-offenders law. How the trackers operate is a mystery, but their role is to enforce what Suffolk County executive Steve Bellone calls the, quote, "toughest sex offender monitoring" law in the country.
STEVE BELLONE: You can expect that you will have an enhanced level of scrutiny unlike anything that exists anywhere else in our country.
LANE: The Suffolk County Legislature approved the bill unanimously. Some, like Democrat Kate Browning, even joked about the law's desired outcome for sex offenders.
KATE BROWNING: And if they don't like it, then they know where they can go. Thank you.
BELLONE: Other counties.
LANE: Lawmakers aimed the bill at what they called predators, people who do bad things to vulnerable people. But Wallace says he and many others aren't bad people. When he was 20, he had consensual sex with a 15-year-old. Wallace says he thought the girl was 18. He avoided jail time by pleading guilty to a sexual assault.
Since then, residency laws have become more and more restrictive. After Suffolk's latest law, he and other low-level offenders filed a lawsuit. Wallace says police essentially deputized the nonprofit Parents for Megan's Law to, quote, "harass" sex offenders in public.
WALLACE: It might be a negative impact if you just walk away from these people, which you legally have the right to do. But the fact that they attempt to ask you questions, just like your name, for whatever purpose, is an unlawful detention.
LANE: What makes Suffolk's crackdown unique is it's being outsourced to civilians. And not just any civilians, but to a victims' advocacy group. Larry Spirn, a local attorney who often defends sex offenders, says Parents for Megan's Law has a national reputation for being hostile to post-conviction sex offenders.
LARRY SPIRN: There isn't the kind of venomous attitudes that exist between police officers and the people that they arrest. I mean, for them, it's a job. That's why policing is a profession and not a, you know, a - something to do when you don't have much else to do. It's not a vigilante exercise, and I think what we have here is an absolute vigilante exercise.
LANE: Spirn compares the possible repercussions to what happened between Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman. How Parents for Megan's Law actually goes about monitoring sex offenders is unknown. The executive director for Parents for Megan's Law, Laura Ahearn, refuses to explain their techniques for a fear it will reveal, quote, "tactical" information about monitoring.
LAURA AHEARN: Representatives will and have gone to registered sex offenders' addresses and simply ask the registered sex offender if they can provide proof that they reside in that particular home.
LANE: The contract between Suffolk County and Parents for Megan's Law does provide some safeguards. Namely the contractors cannot carry firearms and must be former law enforcement. But the contract doesn't outline procedures for address verification or what constitutes proof of residence. In other words, according to Spirn, the line between monitoring and harassing isn't drawn, neither for the offender nor for the contractor. Ahearn declined further requests for an explanation about her group's procedures.
Alissa Ackerman specializes in sex offender management. She's a professor of criminal justice at the University of Washington in Tacoma.
ALISSA ACKERMAN: These broad policies make it more difficult for offenders to live in the community. But when we are destabilizing offenders, when we're making it very difficult for them to find housing or very difficult for them to find work, we're causing more stress, and that may in the future lead to recidivism.
LANE: Ackerman says that while there are many jurisdictions like Suffolk still creating broad, harsh restrictions against sex offenders, the national trend is the other way. More and more communities are creating nuanced laws that attempt to match restrictions with the likelihood an offender will reoffend.
Wallace's lawsuit is ongoing. He is currently recruiting more low-level offenders to join him. For NPR News, I'm Charles Lane.