By Andria Simmons
An estimated 258 dangerous sexual predators are not being monitored as closely as they should be because Georgia’s system of classifying sex offenders based on their danger to the community is seriously backlogged.
Such sexual predators, who are considered likely to commit more sex crimes, are required under a state law passed in 2006 to wear a GPS monitor the rest of their lives and update their sex offender registration twice yearly. Although they are listed in the publicly available registry, the GPS monitoring requirement makes these violent sexual predators accountable for their whereabouts, providing greater assurance that they will stay away from areas where children gather.
Officials on the special state review board said the classification process has been hindered because their analysts who investigate cases were stretched too thin.
Five analysts at the Georgia Bureau of Investigation are currently slogging through 4,300 pending cases while also getting anywhere from 120 to 150 new cases a month, and officials can’t say how long it will take to eliminate the backlog.
“At this point, we’re just trying to catch up and keep up,” said Cindy Ledford, assistant special agent in charge of the Georgia Information Sharing Analysis Center of the GBI.
The backlog has alarmed some advocates of child and adult sexual assault victims.
“To know something like this is happening is … very disheartening and puts you in a mindset of second-guessing what’s the sense of even coming forward,” said DeQuanda Sanders, who founded the Georgia-based nonprofit Saving Our Children and Families (Facebook) to help victims of child abuse. “For an offender to get out and not have their sentence fit their crime, it really is a disservice to the victim.”
When state lawmakers in 2006 passed the sex offender bill it was considered one of the toughest in the nation (PDF). The law prohibited registered sex offenders from living or working within 1,000 feet of any place where children gather, such as churches, schools, swimming pools and parks. Some of those restrictions have since been eased after several lawsuits filed by civil rights groups challenged the constitutionality of the law.
But part of the bill that still stands required sex offenders to be classified as either a Level 1, Level 2 or Level 3 Sexually Dangerous Predator by a specially appointed board called the State 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 means the convicted sex offender has a 4 to 13 percent chance of committing another sex crime.
- Level 2 indicates there’s about a 34 percent chance the sex offender will strike again.
- A Level 3 Sexually Dangerous Predator designation means there’s a 65 percent chance or greater that the offender will commit more sex crimes — and it is this level of offender that requires GPS monitoring and twice-yearly registry updates, said Tracy Alvord, executive director of the Sex Offender Registration Review Board.
Sexually dangerous predators make up only about 4 to 6 percent of convicted sex offenders in Georgia. Based on that percentage, Alvord estimated that about 258 of the 4,300 backlogged offender cases are probably sexually dangerous predators.
- From the data we've been gathering, which is a little out dated, predators account for less than 2% of all sex offenders in the state. We will be updating this spreadsheet again, in the next day or so.
A recent incident in Fairburn illustrates the need for keeping closer tabs on convicted sex offenders.
Bobby Wilcox checked the list of sex offenders in his area in October and recognized one as a volunteer at his children’s Bear Creek Middle School. The man had apparently lied about his name and address to fool school officials. After Wilcox alerted the school, the man was arrested for violating the terms of his probation.
“You may think you live in a nice area, but you just never know,” Wilcox said. “A lot of people get complacent and think things like this won’t happen. They do all the time.”
Research has shown only a small percentage of sex offenders pose a high risk of reoffending, and those offenders are responsible for most of the nation’s sex crimes, said Dr. Julie Medlin, a psychologist who specializes in treating sex offenders and operates four treatment centers in metro Atlanta.
- We have many more studies, here.
The backlog in classifying sex offenders is a consequence of a well-intended law that the state had inadequate resources to swiftly implement, Alvord said. The board meets only once a month and is composed of volunteers who are law enforcement officials, medical professionals and victim advocates. Up until July, the board had only three analysts to gather offenders’ criminal histories.
“Sometimes they pass legislative acts that we have to play catch-up on,” said Chief Steven Land of the Hazelhurst Police Department, who is also vice chairman of the Georgia Sex Offender Registration Review Board. He said no one realized the number of sex offenders who would have to be classified.
Former state Rep. Barry Fleming (R-Harlem), who was House majority whip when the law was passed, said the sex offender classification system may be backlogged, but it’s still an improvement over prior years when no risk assessment was required.
“The situation is getting better, but you couldn’t take years and years where this law hadn’t been implemented and catch up with it overnight,” said Fleming, who has been re-elected to return to the House in January after leaving office in 2008.
In order to classify an offender, the Sex Offender Registration Review Board looks at the person’s history. That review process requires analysts to gather court documents, victim-witness statements and investigative reports for cases that can be years if not decades old, in counties that have different methods of record-keeping.
The biggest obstacle to increasing the volume of classifications was the time it took analysts to obtain those documents.
Up until July, analysts were also hampered by working for a civilian state agency — the state Department of Human Resources — because some local law enforcement agencies were reluctant to send them sensitive police records, said GBI spokesman John Bankhead.
House Bill 895 (PDF), passed by the General Assembly this year, remedied that by transferring the three analysts to the GBI effective July 1. The GBI has also dedicated two more analysts to help with the caseload. Now, the analysts are able to gather the necessary records at a faster clip, Bankhead said.
Medlin, who served on the Sex Offender Registration Review Board prior to the start of the classification system, said one solution to the backlog might be to start classifying sex offenders as soon as they’re convicted, so judges can lock up high-risk offenders longer or require more intensive psychological treatment.
- And you'd have to re-evaluate them when they come out of prison/jail as well.
“It would be much more effective, so much more timely and would make so much more sense,” Medlin said.