Keeping track of sex offenders
You won't find family photos, team pennants, or any other personal items in Mike Cunningham's office.
He wants to know everything about those who visit him at work, but won't reveal anything about himself.
Since 1999, Cunningham has been the one man Megan's Law unit for the Cecil Sheriff's Office. He stands between sex offenders and the public, making sure offenders comply with the law about registering and checking in.
"I'm maybe one of the longest standing (sex offender registrars) in the state," said Cunningham. "I'm not the judge. I'm not the lawyer. I have a responsibility to register them. They have a responsibility to register. If they resist, it makes my job harder. I'm professional and courteous and I don't judge them."
"I make sure they register. But if they don't comply (with the laws) I will lock them up in a heartbeat. If they are living in a stable place and working it makes my job easier. If they are running from me and hiding out in the shadows, it makes my job harder," he said.
Recently, it was homeless day for Detective Cunningham. If a sex offender has no fixed address, he requires them to check in with him once a week. Depending on their crime tier, others on the registry check in several times a year. He said making the homeless find a way to see him more often is designed to make them find a home and employment. "There are seven and most of them are true homeless. Two live out of vans. I make them come here no matter what the weather. If they live in the woods, I have to know what color is the tent," he said.
There are currently about 165 registered sex offenders in Cecil County. A half dozen are juveniles. Two are female. They range in age from teens to 80s.
Cecil used to have more than 200 on the registry. The number dropped by about 75 offenders when a court decision declared that Maryland had violated a double jeopardy law. That resulted in people being dropped from the registry. Cunningham disagrees with that decision. "I've seen people come off that probably shouldn't have come off," he said. Depending on their crime, some are on the registry for a decade, others for a lifetime.
And even after the life of a sex offender ends, Cunningham still has their file. A box in his office is filled with the folders of those who have passed away. The sex offender registry was placed in service four years before Cunningham took the job. Some of the offenders have seen him regularly for years. "When I meet them, I tell them we are going to get old together. I get to see them when they are on hospice, or in a nursing home. I watch them deteriorate," he said.
When they leave his office after checking in, they receive an appointment card, just as you would for a doctor of dentist.
His job goes beyond just meeting with offenders for compliance checks. He also has regular roundtable meetings with various agencies. He does community outreach presentations, teaching groups about the registry. He also travels to pick up offenders who have fled the area. He has flown as far away as Oregon to bring back an offender.
His program is also used as a model for other areas. He presents to them and helps get a proper registry in place. He also speaks to high school students about the registry and how to avoid being placed on it.
Although Cunningham likes his job, it does have its pitfalls. He said it "narrowed" his career. He also says people don't want to walk down the hall with him at work, lest they be mistaken for a sex offender.
"For every one I lose, I get two more. They come in here and I know who the troublemakers are and I know who's complaint. If you talk to people long enough, they will trust you. If they think you are not judging them, they will tell you want they did. I'll get their personal information but they won't get mine," he said.
"Early on, I had pictures of my grandkids. That ended and I no longer have personal stuff in my office. If they ask me if I watched I game or something, I'll say I was working. I'm professional but polite," he said. "I'm not getting anywhere with them if I'm mean."
When he started the job, he received a box of 13 offenders. Now, he has more than 600 files of people who have been on the registry.
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