The federal Jacob Wetterling Act of 1994 imposed a duty on the states to establish sex offender registry programs, including life-long registration for offenders classified as sexually violent predators. In 1996, Megan’s Law required the states to provide public sex offender registries and community notification programs.
Georgia established its Sex Offender Registry (SOR) in 1996, and the Georgia Bureau of Investigation (GBI) created a “new database on an existing mainframe platform.”
Apparently not much has changed since that time, as Georgia’s current SOR is based on “an outdated and inflexible computer system, resulting in a registry that does not fully meet the needs of the law enforcement or the public.”
That was one of the findings in a July 2010 report issued by the Performance Audit Operations division of the Georgia Department of Audits and Accounts, concerning the performance of the state’s SOR.
Contrary to its intended purpose to “provide law enforcement with an effective method of monitoring and investigating sex offenders” through its associated public website, Georgia’s SOR “contains incomplete, inaccurate, and outdated information regarding the number and characteristics of offenders living or working in an area.”
The SOR’s data fields have remained virtually unchanged since its creation in 1996. The database’s structure does not allow new fields to be added “unless an existing data element is removed to make space,” according to the GBI.
Additionally, confusion is created by discrepancies between information contained in the SOR and in the local registries that state law requires each county to maintain – even though the counties do not receive state funding to provide such registries.
Federal law requires the states to “establish a three-tier classification system based on offense,” and to require “sex offenders to periodically verify registration information.” Georgia law determines who qualifies as a sex offender, sets residency restrictions, and establishes a Risk Assessment Classification. However, only 6 percent of the 19,200 sex offenders on the state’s SOR have been classified by a state review board, due to budget cuts.
While Georgia sheriffs and the Georgia Department of Corrections collect all of the required information, there are delays in entering the data into the SOR due to understaffing at the GBI. The SOR system fails to verify information, resulting in inaccurate data entry, and updating the data is difficult because access is overly restrictive. Some sex offenders listed in the SOR were found to have misspelled names or erroneous descriptions or residences.
These shortcomings have several adverse consequences. For example, sheriffs may be unaware of sex offenders living in their counties, and the public might be unable to obtain complete information about a sex offender living or working in their community.
In addition to misinforming members of the public about the number of sex offenders and the threat they may pose, the SOR fails to “inform the public that most sex crimes are committed by acquaintances of their victims, not unknown registered sex offenders.” Even some victims’ rights groups have turned against the state’s SOR.
“I almost feel like it’s a false sense of security,” said Sally Sheppard, director of the Cottage Sexual Assault Center and Child Advocacy Center in Athens, Georgia.
Among other recommendations, the Performance Audit Operations report suggested that the GBI “pursue the development or purchase” of a new SOR computer system. Further, the legislature should eliminate all local registries to ensure the new SOR is the only registry that requires future updating.
Also, to fulfill its responsibility, the GBI should take a “proactive role” in managing the SOR, which will require improving its policies and procedures, performance monitoring and management of the program.
The GBI criticized the report, claiming it was produced with input from a private company, Offender Watch of Louisiana, that is seeking a state contract. “That is just a direct conflict of interest,” said GBI spokesman John Bankhead. The Georgia Department of Audits and Accounts refuted that criticism but acknowledged consulting with officials at Offender Watch, which maintains sex offender registries for about 40 Georgia counties.
The 53-page audit of Georgia’s Sex Offender Registry, Performance Audit 09-18, is available on PLN’s website.
Additional sources: Atlanta Journal-Constitution, www.georgia.gov
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