By Robert Gavin (Times Union)
February 1, 2010
ALBANY -- On May 7, 2007, Rabbi Yaakov Weiss of Chabad of Colonie delivered an invocation about "ethics and morals" to the New York state Assembly.
"May those assembled here know of your presence, by enacting laws they do your will," Weiss told lawmakers inside the ornate chamber in a speech now available on YouTube.
Weiss requested a moment of silence. Then he asked those assembled to think of "one good deed" they would do that day.
The next month, he broke state law.
Weiss had "inappropriate physical contact" with a 13-year-old boy while both were naked inside a small pool known as a mikveh on Whitehall Road. He victimized another 13-year-old boy later in 2007 -- and told one of the boys to "just say nothing happened" to police and his mother.
The conduct was revealed when Weiss pleaded guilty to child endangerment Jan. 11 in Albany County Court.
But while his case ended in a conviction, Weiss, 29, of Loudonville, did not have to register as a sex offender. And nor has anyone else convicted of endangering the welfare of a child in New York state.
The offense, a top misdemeanor carrying a maximum of one year behind bars, is the most frequent crime committed against children based on statewide arrests. But it is not considered a sex crime -- even when the crime is of a sexual nature.
By pleading guilty to endangerment, Weiss admitted to an offense that can be committed in many ways. It ranges from "leaving a young child in a car unattended to exposing a child to drug use to extreme tortures short of homicide," according to memo for a bill sponsored by Assemblyman Joseph Abbate, D-Brooklyn, and state Sen. John Flanagan, a Long Island Republican.
Their proposal, yet to escape either the Senate or Assembly, would require endangerment offenders to join the sex offender registry when their crime involves "conduct of a sexual nature" or "sexual behavior," the memo states. "These acts are no different than many of the crimes which require an offender to register. However because of this gap in the law, many sex offenders elude the important safeguards for society."
In the Weiss case, an indictment initially alleged he had sexual contact "consisting of placing his penis in contact with said child's buttocks." When he pleaded guilty, the issue of registration appeared to play a part. His attorney, Arnold Proskin, told Judge Stephen Herrick, "I explained to the rabbi that he does not have to register as a sex offender."
Reaction to his plea, which includes up to 60 days in jail, was fierce. On a Times Union crime blog, several readers demanded to know why Weiss avoided having to register as a sex offender or receive a more-severe penalty. But Weiss faced a misdemeanor indictment that carried a maximum penalty of two years in jail for two counts each of endangerment and sexual abuse. While a conviction for sex abuse would have required he register as a sex offender, he had to be convicted first.
A prosecutor noted the plea deal, which spares the court the time and expense of a trial, enabled Weiss to admit to his activity while also sparing the boys from testifying.
Lentol did not expect the law to change. To do so, he said, would tie the hands of prosecutors.
"Sounds simple. Just restrict the plea ... you go to court and you lose," Lentol said in a phone interview. "It is very concerning ... the answer is not to tie the hands of the prosecutor so he can't get a conviction at all."
Cases of child endangerment steadily increased across the state from 5,744 in 2003 to 6,717 in 2008, with 6,193 as of Nov. 15.
Albany County followed a similar pattern between 2003 to 2006, when cases increased from 205 to 260. But in 2008 the number of cases dropped to 176. As of Nov. 15, there had been 146 for 2009.
In Rensselaer County, cases dropped from 106 in 2003 to 99 in 2008, with 82 as of Nov. 15. In Schenectady County, cases rose from 83 in 2003 to 105 in 2006. They dropped to 70 in 2008 -- but increased to 108 as of Nov. 15.
In Saratoga County, cases increased from 63 in 2003 to 83 in 2008, with 94 cases as of Nov. 15.