News & Views » Cover Story

Sex offenders incognito

The Georgia sex offender registry was created to help keep people safe. But how can it do that if it's riddled with errors?



Page 2 of 4

For its part, the GBI only has two dedicated staff members to operate the statewide registry containing information on nearly 20,000 sex offenders, with an estimated 34,000 offenders expected in its database within the next decade.

But the fact remains that the inaccuracies I found weren't an anomaly. In fact, my findings might be conservative.

The arrests following the sweeps across Clayton and Fulton counties last month by the sex offender task force were the result of a compliance check of 105 offenders. Of those 105 violators, a whopping 78 weren't living were the registry said they were. That's more than double the ratio I found in my investigation, which adds up to staggering numbers.

Inaccuracy at the rate of only one-third could mean that more than 6,000 offenders may be unaccounted for statewide. But if those December raids where any indication, 74 percent — or 14,000 — of the statewide population of sex offenders could be operating incognito.

"I feel like it's very much a false sense of security," Sally Sheppard, executive director of the Southeastern Sexual Assault Center and Child Advocacy Center, says of the registry.

Advocacy groups such as Sheppard's stand behind the need for a sex offender registry but admit they can't trust its accuracy. She points to another obvious but sometimes overlooked shortfall of the list: "The majority of sex offenders are not on the registry," Sheppard says. "They've not even been arrested."

The GBI reported that nearly 1,600 sex crimes were committed statewide in 2010, most of them either by first offenders, who would not appear on the registry, or by family members or acquaintances, who are threats that the registry can't protect against.

Sheppard says she's seen these statistics play out. "I would say that 80 percent of those who abuse children are family members or very close people to [the family], because those are the people that would likely be around the children."

In cases of sex crimes involving adult victims, the percentage of attacks where the perpetrators are known to the victims is even higher. And in those cases, the sex offender registry would not have been able to deliver a warning, either.

Laws requiring sex offenders to register with law enforcement have existed as far back as 1947 in California. But the idea of a sex offender registry really began to emerge as something of an emotional "call to arms" with the 1989 abduction of an 11-year-old boy in Minnesota, resulting in the Jacob Wetterling Act of 1994.

The Wetterling Act requires every state to compile a list of those convicted of sex crimes and crimes against children and to provide the list to the public. The law was expanded to include a directive to the FBI to compile and maintain a national database of repeat sex offenders with the enactment of Megan's Law in 1996, named for Megan Kanka, a 7-year-old New Jersey girl who was raped and killed by a known child molester who lived on her street.

In Georgia, legislation was passed in 2006 to strengthen the then-10-year-old sex offender laws by making it illegal for offenders to live, work or volunteer in areas where children may gather, such as playgrounds, churches or schools. After a period of intense, heated debate and political infighting between the state Supreme Court and the Georgia legislature, the law was amended in May 2010 by the Georgia Assembly to ease some of the requirements placed on offenders. With last year's amendment, Georgia finally adopted a meaningful system for categorizing offenders based on the relative danger they pose to the public. The law now provides for offenders to be divided into risk assessment levels that separate, say, actual rapists from a teenager who may have accepted a statutory rape plea for having sex with his underage girlfriend.

In addition, homeless sex offenders do not have to be responsible for providing a permanent address to law enforcement. In fact, many sex offenders have actually taken to forming compounds in the wooded areas in and around Atlanta — often because they've been forced to leave their homes (including homes they own) and can't find another place to live that satisfies the strict distance requirements.

Sheppard says she can see where severely limiting the lives of sex offenders might infringe on civil liberties and, as a result, impede their attempts at recovery.

"Sometimes, I think [the registry] might actually keep an offender from rehabilitating," Sheppard says. "But we have to know where they are."

The problem of the list's accountability might have less to do with how it's maintained than how it's designed to work in the first place.

Comments (20)

Showing 1-20 of 20

Add a comment

Add a comment