By Jennifer Reading
MONTPELIER - It's another black mark for the Vermont Sex Offender Registry.
"There are errors. And they should not have been there," said Doug Hoffer, D-Vt. Auditor.
Hoffer says the system needs work. A performance audit by his office found critical errors in 253 offender records. That's 11 percent of the total registry.
"The Legislature has said very clearly that they wanted information to be available to the general public, as is the case in other states," Hoffer said. "And we all have a right for the information to be accurate. Not only for the people in the community, but for the offenders."
The registry is a tool for law enforcement and the public to keep track of sexual predators living in the community. That's something Chelsea Merrill, 21, couldn't do for a while. Her abuser, _____, was convicted of lewd and lascivious conduct. He targeted her for five years while she was a child. Yet his photo wasn't on the public registry until recently. And she worried he'd find more victims.
"That he will offend again," she said. "That he will get close to another child and feel comfortable with them. And this will happen again."
- So are you saying that if his/her photo is online then they won't re-offend? The problem is, most do not re-offend in the first place!
An audit conducted in 2010 found the system was rife with errors. Hoffer says four years later, the Legislature tasked his office with a follow-up examination.
His team uncovered:
- 11 registration errors where offenders were either incorrectly added, omitted or still online after their deaths.
- 179 errors related to how long an offender should stay on the registry.
- 71 mistakes regarding which offenders' information should be posted online.
Hoffer says these mistakes undermine the credibility of the registry. It's managed by two people within the Department of Public Safety's Vermont Crime Information Center or VCIC. But the auditor says state courts and corrections also play a role.
"They have not worked together as well as they could," Hoffer said.
"The program is still a work in progress," said Jeffrey Wallin who heads the VCIC.
Wallin says since the audit's conclusion in mid-May, almost all the mistakes have been fixed.
Many of them were a result of human error from manual data entry, a problem the center has been working to streamline. Last February, VCIC unveiled new software called OffenderWatch to help automate data entry. Despite a few technology glitches, Wallin says it's improved the accuracy of the registry.
- It doesn't matter how expensive or nice the program is, as long as you have humans entering data, then there is always potential for human errors.
"Right now the public can be fairly confident in the registry," Wallin said. "We are always looking to improve. Provide better information, better service and better response to the community, but also to the individuals listed."
Moving forward Hoffer has recommended the courts, corrections and VCIC reconvene a working group to hash out their communication breakdown. It's a suggestion the auditor's office also made after the 2010 audit.
"And they did. And then they kind of let it go," Hoffer said. "So they certainly need more coordination between them."
And victims like Merrill say fixing these mistakes should remain a top priority.
"If it was one of their kids, would they want to know if their neighbor was a sex offender or had done such a crime with a child? Would they want their kid walking to school past their neighbor's house every day knowing that they live there?" Merrill said.
- So why don't you walk to the bus stop with your child? You know, be a parent!
In 2009, Vermont lawmakers approved a measure to post sex offenders' addresses to the online registry. The move was contingent on a favorable audit. Problems discovered in 2010 prevented that from happening. This audit was a second chance. But more errors likely mean the addresses of sexual predators will remain under wraps.