Shortcomings in Georgia’s sex offender registration program are going to cost the state hundreds of thousands of dollars in federal grant money, according to a letter the U.S. Department of Justice sent to the governor.
The state receives from $4.9 million to almost $5.9 million annually from the Edward Byrne Memorial Justice Assistance Grant and has spent the money on several legal initiatives, but problems with the sex offender registry could cost Georgia 10 percent of its allotment.
There are 22,345 names on Georgia's sex offender registry, which is available to the public to track sex offenders in their communities, including information on where they live.
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The Department of Justice has found the state’s registry deficient each year since 2011 for failing to gather a variety of information on convicted sex offenders.
One of the shortcomings the federal money would have to address is work to assess the risk that each offender poses to commit another sex crime.
Federal law requires that each offender be classified as either Level 1, Level 2 or Level 3, which is done in Georgia by a specially appointed Sex Offender Registration Review Board. The classification system helps local law enforcement focus on monitoring those sex offenders who pose the greatest danger.
Level 1 offenders have a 4 percent to 13 percent chance of committing another sex crime, while those at Level 2 have a 34 percent chance of committing another sex offense. Level 3 offenders — "sexually dangerous predators" — have a 65 percent chance of committing more sex crimes. They must wear an ankle monitor for life. There are currently 682 sexually dangerous predators on the registry.
Of all the offenders on the registry, about 4,000 still need to have a risk level assigned. They are either living in the community or are a year from being released from prison. Loss of the grant money could mean that the state is unable to whittle away that backlog.
Tracy Alvord, executive director of the Sex Offender Registration Review Board, said the review board will lose $250,000 as its share of the grant. That loss almost equals the amount her agency has received to help finish the work of assigning risk levels to sex offenders.
“We’ve been maintaining,” Alvord said, adding that the $234,845 the review board began tapping on April 1 allowed her to hire seven temporary workers, with an eighth expected soon. Those workers augment the work already being done by her permanent staff, which processes the records of about 150 sex offenders a month.
Alvord estimated that of the 4,000 waiting for a risk assessment, about 320 will be found to be sexually dangerous predators.
While the Department of Justice has found the state’s registry deficient for several years, Georgia — like other states — succeeded repeatedly in persuading the DOJ’s Office of Sex Offender Sentencing, Monitoring, Apprehending, Registering and Tracking (SMART) to “re-allocate” the 10 percent it planned to withhold.
“Every year, jurisdictions have had to apply for 10 percent (in lost grant money) to be returned to them, and it has been returned,” said Stephanie Carrigg, a SMART office senior policy adviser. “This year we notified everybody that we would be enforcing what the statute has always said.”
That means no reallocation. In other words, Georgia and 13 other states will see their allotments from the Edward Byrne Memorial Justice Assistance Grant, or Byrne JAG funds, given to the states, U.S. territories that currently comply with the federal law. According to SMART, 18 states, four territories and more than 130 Native American tribes had implemented all the requirements of SORNA.
“Every jurisdiction (state) gets Byrne JAG money as long as they have a plan of moving toward implementation,” Carrigg said.
The letter to the governor obtained by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution said, “Georgia’s current reallocation request does not demonstrate a sufficient plan for implementation of your state’s outstanding SORNA (Sex Offender Registration and Notification Act) requirements. Accordingly, your request for reallocation is denied.”
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In the meanwhile, the Georgia Bureau of Investigation has three vacancies on the team that gathers criminal histories for the sex offender review board, according to GBI director Vernon Keenan, whose agency also maintains the online sex offender registry.
“With our current staffing level we are not handling the new cases as they come in,” said Keenan. “It’s important for the public to have as much relevant information (as possible) about sex offenders.”
The Criminal Justice Coordinating Council, the state agency that distributes grants, lists among the state’s shortcomings cited by the federal agency:
• Georgia’s registry doesn’t include juvenile sex offenders. State law prohibits the release of information about juvenile offenders.
• Georgia doesn’t require sex offenders to report to local authorities when they plan to travel outside the country 21 days in advance.
• Georgia allows a “broader class” of offenders to ask the court to relieve them of the requirement to register and some offenders don’t have to update their status as frequently as the federal law prescribes.
• Georgia does not make sex offenders’ criminal histories available to the public. State law prohibits the release of anyone’s criminal history.
• Georgia’s registry does not include a sex offender’s full date of birth, where they go to school, their vehicle information or their employer’s address. The GBI said it briefly posted where sex offenders worked in the registry, but stopped the practice after employers complained.
“For most jurisdictions, there’s usually something they can do to move toward substantial implementation,” said Laura Rogers, director of the DOJ’s SMART office. “It doesn’t have to be 100 percent.”
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Credit: Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com