After experiencing issues with the new sex offender registry software, several counties decided to use a paid subscription service to supplement the state’s mandated option.
Victims of sexual assault and anyone else who monitors South Carolina’s sex offender registry may be viewing false information, The Greenville Newsfound during a review of the state’s sex offender registry.
The uncertainty arose as the state transitioned to new tracking software this year. In addition to misleading information, the state inadvertently published juvenile sex offender information online for nearly two weeks when the new system was rolled out.
Months into the changeover, The Greenville News found intrastate and interstate discrepancies in sex offender data, revealing a lack of communication between jurisdictions.
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It’s a chilling feeling when a victim sees conflicting information about their molester, said Tim Fisher, a Nevada resident who is a survivor of sexual assault and an advocate for victims. How is someone supposed to know which information is correct?
“Why scare me?” Fisher said. “When there’s an offender who’s listed as absconder in one state and compliant in another, nine times out of 10, your victim, your survivor, is not going to look at the other record. They’re going to see the one red flag, and they’re going to freak. These are mothers. These are kids like myself who grew up and are literally afraid of what our abusers can do because we know what they did do.”
The State Law Enforcement Division defended the accuracy of the new system, blaming discrepancies on sex offenders who failed to properly register with law enforcement.
SLED Chief Mark Keel said the inconsistencies could be found in any state.
“It’s only as good as what information gets put in it,” Keel said.
The root of the problem
Until this year, South Carolina was among 21 states that used OffenderWatch to track sex offenders, according to Watch Systems, the company that provides OffenderWatch.
Once the state’s business relationship dissolved with OffenderWatch, SLED mandated that starting this year every South Carolina county use the Sex Offender Registry Tool (SORT), a free application provided by the Department of Justice.
Within weeks of using SORT and encountering various issues, multiple counties agreed to a contract with OffenderWatch, a paid subscription service that previously was in effect statewide.
“And now we have a problem,” Fisher said. “Because now we have the state system, which does not communicate with the other systems.”
Keel said the state never would’ve left the previous vendor “if we had a system that we felt worked and was efficient and was accurate.”
“I wasn’t going to be allowed as an agency head to be held hostage by a vendor who can go up on me, increase my cost, at any time they want to and there’s nothing I can do about it,” Keel said.
The counties using SORT and OffenderWatch must update the systems separately.
Spartanburg, Anderson, Richland, Berkeley, Darlington, Dillon and Horry counties continue to use OffenderWatch for various reasons, said Joe Gauthier, director of client services for Watch Systems. The counties signed contracts based on population, adding an expense they didn’t have when the state paid for OffenderWatch. Spartanburg, Richland and Horry counties paid $6,375 for a one-year contract, according to Gauthier. Darlington, Anderson and Berkeley counties paid $4,250, while Dillon County signed a $1,025 contract, Gauthier said.
The counties that resumed using OffenderWatch said productivity and efficiency dropped without it because many of the processes were automated, Gauthier said.
“Deputies were taken out of the communities and forced into a manual data entry role,” Gauthier said.
A benefit of OffenderWatch is that when a sex offender record is updated, the system updates the file in real time for every client in the OffenderWatch network, which includes 3,500 local, state and federal law enforcement agencies throughout the country. Most states in the Southeast, including North Carolina, Tennessee and Georgia, have statewide contracts with OffenderWatch, according to the company’s website.
Although SORT is a government application, SLED employs a programmer who builds the system, adds state-specific functionalities and addresses issues.
SLED said SORT also updates information immediately and has done so since it was implemented here. Gauthier said this does not happen with SORT.
The Horry County Sheriff’s Office concurred with Watch Systems’ assessment and renewed its OffenderWatch contract “while some of the issues with the SORT program are being worked out,” Sgt. Sherri Smith told The News.
“At the time we renewed our contract, our greatest concern was the ability to update the website in real time,” Smith said in an email.
The Anderson County Sheriff’s Office uses every available tool to keep track of sex offenders, Lt. Sheila Cole said.
“That being said, we continue to use Offender Watch in addition to SORT because it provides functionality that allows us to more easily identify offenders who fail to register,” Cole told The News. “Also, Offender Watch allows us to perform searches based on a suspect description. It also provides our investigators (in the field) the ability to remotely verify and update the status of an offender.”
SLED said SORT can perform searches based on descriptions but does not have the other two functions within SORT that Cole mentioned.
Keel said major advantages with SORT are: SLED maintains the database, can customize the software to South Carolina laws and create functionalities the sheriffs want. However, some of the customized options and improvements will take time to implement.
“When I talked with the sheriffs, I told them it would take us a year to get everything fully functional the way we wanted it to make the improvements,” Keel said, adding that counties have reported that system is efficient and easy to operate.
Any problems this year were “nothing more than what you would normally expect any time you change from one system to another,” SLED spokesman Thom Berry said.
However, the state had to deal with a new problem.
A data conversion issue caused information for juvenile sex offenders, more than 900 in the state, to be available for about 12 days in January, Berry said. The names, pictures, birth dates, addresses and physical descriptions — the same information available for adult offenders — was published. Oconee County authorities notified SLED, and state staff resolved the issue on Jan. 14, state officials said.
How the registry works
More than 15,000 individuals are labeled as sex offenders in the South Carolina registry, according to SLED records.
An individual is considered a sex offender in South Carolina if convicted of certain crimes, including, but not limited to: criminal sexual conduct, incest, peeping and voyeurism. Kidnapping and trafficking in persons, depending on the details of the case, may also land a person on the sex offender registry.
A judge has discretion to determine if someone found urinating in public would be required to register.
A South Carolina sex offender is required to register biannually for life, during the person’s birthday month and six months later, according to state law. Some offenders are required to register every three months.
Sex offender registries exist, in part, to help the victims and communities keep track of offenders in their neighborhoods. The registries also serve as a tool for law enforcement.
The information on the South Carolina registry comes from local sheriff’s offices, Berry said.
Laura Hudson, the executive director of South Carolina Crime Victims Council, described the state’s sex offender registry as a “passive” system, meaning it’s up to residents to find the information. It is important for the public to be diligent, she said, because sex offenders sometimes can move here from another state and “we don’t know it.”
The sex offender registry is a good tool for law enforcement, but is not the “end all and be all of safety,” Hudson said.
“As far as I know, the material that is on SLED, I’ve never had anybody claim that it wasn’t accurate,” Hudson said. “I have had people say I know somebody that’s a sex offender and they’re not on there.”
The News, by checking the different websites, confirmed multiple instances in the Upstate in which data for a sex offender conflicted with the information of other states. A review also found sex offenders listed as noncompliant or not registered in a county but compliant on the state’s registry, creating confusion rooted in the fact that there are two different systems.
Fisher also found multiple instances in which data for an offender did not match up across state lines, including in Greenville County. One man, for example, was labeled as an absconder in Greenville County but compliant in North Carolina. In this case, the Sheriff’s Office said it was aware of the individual registering in North Carolina. The South Carolina registry was updated after The News questioned the discrepancy.
“We are responsible for offenders in our county,” the Greenville County Sheriff’s Office said in a statement, “and we periodically audit our non-compliant offenders to see if we can locate and verify that they are compliant in another state. We encourage anyone who has a question or concern regarding an offender to contact Beverly Pettit at 864-467-5192. The Greenville County Sheriff’s Office investigates every tip and complaint that comes into our office regarding sex offenders.”
In one example, a man is listed as noncompliant and incarcerated on Spartanburg County’s OffenderWatch site. The confusion arises when the information is checked against the state registry. The SLED site does not indicate the sex offender is an absconder, or noncompliant, because he’s in jail, Berry said. But the state website also does not have a section to show that the sex offender is incarcerated, Berry said.
“It should be showing the address where the individual is incarcerated,” Berry said. “If it does not, then that could be something the folks at the local departments can address.”
Fisher found multiple cases involving inconsistent information between Spartanburg County and the state registry.
“When they’re compliant and noncompliant in the same state, that should not happen,” Fisher said.
Users also may be confused because SORT and OffenderWatch have different formats.
“We went back to using OffenderWatch in conjunction with SORT at the beginning of February, which our agency pays for, because we felt like it is easier to read and is more user friendly,” Spartanburg County Lt. Kevin Bobo said in an email.
In another example, a man is listed as noncompliant in Spartanburg County and an absconder on the state registry. So the data matches within the state, although the verbiage is different. That person, however, is registered and compliant in Georgia, according to the national registry. A victim may wonder which one is correct.
Fisher said he did not notice these issues when South Carolina used OffenderWatch.
Fisher, who lives in Las Vegas, has audited sex offender registries nationwide for about six years. He says there is no method for how he chooses a state to audit. He may see something online or someone may bring an issue to his attention via Facebook.
He said he has built a rapport with the Department of Public Safety in Nevada. He sends them tips about registered sex offenders who are noncompliant in Nevada but compliant in another state. The state researches the tip and contacts the proper jurisdiction.
“They know my track record is impeccable,” Fisher said. “The hard part is getting law enforcement in other jurisdictions to accept that. Law enforcement, most often, believes that they’re correct 100 percent.”
More than 800,000 sex offenders are registered in the United States, according to Parents For Megan’s Law and The Crime Victims Center, a nonprofit organization committed to prevention and treatment of child sexual abuse and rape. Fisher said he has provided more than 900 tips to law enforcement nationwide.
Fisher said law enforcement agencies need to do a better job communicating across state lines and with the offenders, especially when it appears they are trying to do the right thing.
“I’m thinking it’s a major flaw in that we’re not telling these offenders exactly what they have to do,” Fisher said. “If you’re trying to hide, you’re not going to register where you’re going. But the jurisdictions don’t communicate.”
Berry said SLED has the means to communicate with every state in the nation.
“We use SORT exchange to communicate with the other states, so, yes we do have that linkage,” he said. “It’s just not within SORT itself, but we do have the SORT exchange that we do use to communicate state to state.”
Fisher said if the state websites have conflicting information then people cannot protect their children and they question the accuracy of the information.
“Each one of these offenders represents at least one victim,” Fisher said. “I was a victim for seven years when I was kid. Two other victims were found after I made my report, which meant that my offender took three kids over the course of 12 years and molested them. Each one of these offenders represents a victim or a survivor, depending on where that person is in their life right now. I know we use these tools, the sex offender registries, because we want to know where our bad guys are. It’s not just for concerned parents living in this neighborhood or that neighborhood.”