The basis of Georgia’s statewide sex offender registry is an antiquated and inflexible system that contains incomplete, inaccurate and outdated information on sex offenders, according to a recent audit.
The Georgia Bureau of Investigation, which maintains the online registry along with the state’s 159 sheriff’s offices, responded that the report from the Georgia Department of Audits and Accounts didn’t say anything the agency didn’t point out four years ago.
“[The audit] was a waste of time, because everything it told us we already knew,” said John Bankhead, the GBI’s chief spokesman. “It was a waste of taxpayers’ money which could have been used to make the upgrades that they complained about.”
According to the GBI’s official response to the audit, since 2006, the GBI has alerted the governor’s office and other key officials through memos that the operation of the sex offender registry is severely understaffed and in dire need of a technology upgrade.
When the GBI’s online sex offender registry became active in 1998, it was staffed by one person. Twelve years and 17,000 sex offenders later, it is staffed by two people and a temporary contract worker.
“It’s just very problematic,” said Dawn Diedrich, the GBI’s assistant deputy director for the Georgia Crime Information Center.
The GBI estimates it would take a minimum of $395,000 for technology upgrades, five full-time staffers and one webmaster to operate the registry efficiently.
Twice in 2007, GBI officials sought federal grants of almost $300,000 to upgrade the system, and in both cases, they were denied.
Since then, the cash-strapped state government has imposed cuts on the GBI that have created understaffed field offices and crime labs. The agency has recently been asked to propose additional cuts of 6 percent and 8 percent.
Georgia’s sheriffs, meanwhile, are faced with their own budgeting and staffing issues. The law, passed in 1996, requires that each sheriff’s office maintain a list of sex offenders and monitor their whereabouts.
“They’ve got an unfunded mandate with this sex offender registry,” Bankhead said.
Terry Norris, executive director of the Georgia Sheriffs’ Association, said as the list of offenders has grown, sheriffs are increasingly having to shuffle their existing staff to maintain the local database.
“Honestly I don’t know of any sheriff’s office that was funded to do this locally,” Norris said. “This is just something else that’s got to come out of their budget.”
Georgia’s sheriffs would like to see a better classification system that identifies legitimate threats to society versus people who are on the registry for lesser crimes like statutory rape, Norris said.
Norris said the fact that the sex offender data is not always transmitted to the state in an accurate manner “is inherit in any system in which you’ve got 159 sources of updating the data.”
Norris also believes members of the public may be placing too much importance on the registry and its perceived protection of society.
“Statistics support the fact that it’s usually someone in the inner circle you already know who’s more likely to molest your child, rather than a stranger next door who happens to be on the sex offender registry.”
The current system may be imperfect, but officials don’t see improvements coming any time soon.
“Not until this revenue shortfall and the economy changes, there won’t be,” Bankhead said.