Georgia sex crime registry filled with errors

But it doesn’t, a new state investigation has found.

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The registry, a Web-based database that shows where convicted sex offenders are living and what they look like, was created to help concerned citizens track convicted sex criminals in their community. The state Legislature required all 159 counties to set up websites listing up-to-date, complete information so residents can know who is in their area. The Georgia Bureau of Investigation is required by law to maintain a statewide registry. It is not required to offer that information to the public through its website, although it has for many years. The registry is one of the most visited of the state government’s many websites.

A new state audit has found that the state registry is flawed with error-ridden, out-of-date and incomplete information.

In a 53-page report, auditors faulted outdated computers, underfunding, understaffing and poor communication between government agencies. The report raises so many concerns that House Speaker David Ralston, R-Blue Ridge, told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution he plans to call in a committee to review the report and draw up recommendations before next year’s legislative session.

Kurt Fieldhaus is a husband and father in Waterbury Cove, a subdivision in Lawrenceville. The 43-year-old chairs the local Community Oriented Policing Services board that coordinates with local law enforcement and looks to improve public safety. He said he has tried to use the registry to keep up with changes in his neighborhood and he’s noticed problems.

“At first, I thought, this is impressive,” he said. “A few months later, as I was looking at it ... well, you can create the most perfect database, but if it’s a dynamic database and you don’t put in the resources for updating it, it becomes a less and less valuable tool over time.”

Fieldhaus said he warns people to consider the database as highlighting potential problems, not definite ones. He said his community has an offender who was supposedly living in their area, but the database information was cursory and later proved inaccurate. The convicted offender had moved away.

Victim advocacy groups say they rarely use the registry in part because it’s not timely.

“I almost feel like it’s a false sense of security,” said Sally Sheppard, executive director of the Cottage Sexual Assault Center and Child Advocacy Center in Athens.

Auditors wrote that “errors in the database and the incomplete information on the state website may misinform the public about the number of offenders and the threat posed by offenders in their community.”

The audit found:

● The GBI, which maintains the state registry “has not established adequate management controls over [registry] program operations.” One example: If an offender moves from out of state, a sheriff sends paperwork to the GBI to add them to the Georgia registry. The audit stated the GBI takes too long to add the information, allowing cases to pile up and only working on them “intermittingly.” Meanwhile, the offenders are not listed for months.

● In-state offenders also aren’t being listed in a timely fashion, and the registry isn’t keeping up with them when they move.

● The registry’s database isn’t listing all the information about offenders that state law requires. In some cases, the software doesn’t even allow the information to be entered. In other cases, it was easy for police or state data entry workers to add errors into the data.

● Physical descriptions and photographs of offenders are not being updated frequently enough.

● A special state review board, set up to rank offenders by their danger to the community, is so understaffed and backlogged that it has not classified thousands of offenders. The report found that only 6 percent of the state’s almost 20,000 offenders have been classified by the board, which due to budget cuts has only four full-time and four part-time staffers.

As a result, Georgians don’t know who is living near them. A sex offender may be classified low risk, medium risk or a “predator” — if the board ever gets around to reviewing the offender’s case.

The review board did not return calls seeking comment for this article.

The system is deeply fragmented. Financially strapped counties are required to gather and keep up-to-date information on sex offenders. Some do it themselves, some have privatized the operation and some don’t comply at all. The state registry is compiled from a hodgepodge of sources — county information, what the state can gather, the prisons and other states when offenders move here.

J. Terry Norris, executive vice president at the Georgia Sheriffs’ Association, has complained about the registry for years, especially the legal requirements placed on sheriffs, the lack of state funding and weak coordination among agencies.

A recent check of the registry by the AJC confirmed various problems. Many offenders are identified improperly, with names misspelled. Others have their identifying marks listed inaccurately.

For example, Richard Mundell, convicted of aggravated sexual assault of a child in Texas, now lives in Haralson County. The database lists him as having no tattoos. In fact, as his photograph on the database shows, he has a large tattoo on his neck.

Some offenders are listed as “homeless,” even though their addresses are listed in the database as verified. Some sex crimes are not described at all, being listed as “9999 Other crime,” with no explanation. Many are listed as “absconders,” meaning they did not report to local police as required by law.

Metro Atlanta parents who are familiar with the registry said they weren’t surprised to hear about the audit’s findings.

Christina Barnette, 40, an Atlanta mother of three young children, said that she checked the sex offender website in the past — and didn’t find it very helpful. “All it told me was there’s a lot of sex offenders and it doesn’t matter where you live,” she said

Beth Ely, 44, a mother of two, said she checked the registry about a year ago when her family moved to a neighborhood in Chamblee. She found it incomplete. “It’s a pretty sloppy system,” she said.

Though state agencies and local sheriffs all told the AJC that the registry has big problems, the GBI criticized the audit.

GBI spokesman John Bankhead said the two-person office running the registry at the GBI is doing the best it can, and the GBI is well aware of what it needs to fix. The issue is funding, he said. He said the registry started in 1996 with one staffer and 300 offenders. Today the office has two staffers — and almost 20,000 offenders.

Bankhead also charged that the audit was guided by a private company, Offender Watch of Louisiana, gunning for a state contract. Offender Watch has its own database and software to track criminals, including sexual offenders.

“That is just a direct conflict of interest,” he said.

In fact, state staff launched and conducted the entire audit, said Leslie McGuire, performance audit division director of the state Department of Audits and Accounts.

She said auditors did their own work, including interviewing state and local officials. They also spoke with officials at Offender Watch, because they work with many sheriffs’ departments in the state. Offender Watch was not compensated in any way and there is no proposal for Offender Watch to get state business. But it made sense to talk to the company, McGuire said.

“It would have been irresponsible not to look at other options that were available,” she said.

Joe Gauthier of Offender Watch in Georgia said he was surprised to hear the GBI was angry over the audit and the fact that he spoke with state auditors.

“I didn’t take [the report] as a slam on the GBI, as it was on the outdated technology,” he said.

Gauthier told the AJC that this year he started talking to Georgia officials about setting up a statewide system like ones that the company operates in nearby states. He guessed such a plan would cost the state about $400,000 a year.

The state audit predicted the registry’s problems will only get worse in coming years as the registered sex offender population in the state rises. The number of registered sex offenders has risen to about 20,000 this year and is expected to reach 34,000 in the next decade. The population is expected to rise because offenders, once on the list, take a long time to be removed, if ever, and more are added every year.

The registry has been controversial for years, with many challenging fairness and accuracy of such a list. Others have strongly supported the concept, arguing it keeps an eye on potential repeat offenders. Legislators have passed laws repeatedly to bolster the registry as well as residency restrictions for offenders.

Legislative leaders say the audit has sparked them to review the registry. Ralston, who was the lead sponsor on the last major piece of legislation expanding offender residency restrictions, said he plans to call a special pre-session meeting of the House Judicial Non-Civil Committee to review the audit this fall. He said he is willing to consider more funding.

“I’m open to any reasonable solution,” he said.

For sheriffs across the state, the unfunded requirement that they set up registry websites had been a burden. Most try to run their own and still others simply link to the GBI’s site or to some commercial version of that information. Gene Pope, sheriff of Butts County, between Atlanta and Macon, said he assigned two officers to watch about 50 convicted sex offenders in his county. Some of their time now has to go to maintaining the registry website.

“It’s a drain on my resources,” he said.

About 40 sheriffs have hired Offender Watch to maintain their sex offender databases. Many of them are strong supporters. Carroll County, west of Atlanta, has been using the system for three years to keep track of about 250 offenders. The program costs the county about $7,000 annually.

Terry Welch, training director and adviser for the sheriffs’ association Sex Offender Registry Task Force, said the biggest problem preventing an accurate, complete registry is technology: The computers that the GBI is using are just too old and don’t have the power necessary to handle the workload.

“Funding is the No. 1 problem to deal with regarding what this law mandates,” she said. “The way it is now, it’s all confused.”

Staff writer Tim Eberly contributed to this article.

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