When it comes to monitoring the movements of sex offenders in Tennessee, a new report is raising serious questions about a real threat to public safety.
Alarming findings in a state audit from the state comptroller's office, which conducts audits of state agencies. It shows the state has almost completely dropped the ball on keeping tabs on the movements of sexual predators. The failure rate so high it's almost inconceivable.
Audit from State Comptroller's Office
In 2005, the FOX13 I-Team showed you a fancy new two-and-a-half million dollar GPS tracking system. The state said it would keep Tennessee communities safer from sexual predators, who would have to wear GPS equipped ankle bracelets. The system went online statewide in 2007. Five years later, it appears to be an epic failure. Even the sexual predators who wear the ankle bracelets say the devices are not an effective tool in keeping "us" safe from "them".
"The ankle bracelet is not what it's cracked up to be. It's not what everything what people think it is. They'll call you when they're not supposed to and when they are supposed to they don't call you, but as far as reducing the number of sex offenders and what they can do, it's down in each person's heart, it's just like any other crime." John Bowers of Memphis, went to prison for three and a half years for sexually assaulting a young boy in 2001. For the next 12 years, he has to wear this ankle bracelet so the state can monitor his movements. Making sure he's not too close to a school or a daycare. He admits children who roam these areas are in constant danger from people like him.
I asked, "it would be fair to say that as a sex offender, you're still a danger to society, even in your own mind?" "Yes I'm a risk to society. I wouldn't say I'm a danger to society, but I am a risk." A risk that's been poorly managed by the State of Tennessee.
The FOX13 I-Team has obtained an audit of the GPS tracking system the state implemented in 07. The findings alarming. Between March and December of 2011, state auditors looked at close to seven thousand (6,950) instances of a GPS alarm going off. In more than five thousand of those instances the alarm indicated a paroled sex offender might be near a school, a park or a daycare center. And in a shocking 81% of the cases the state never made sure the children were safe. They never "cleared" the alarm.
Here's how it's supposed to work. If a sexual predator enters a restricted zone, like a school, his ankle bracelet sends an alarm to a probation officer. That officer is supposed to check with the offender and local police and make sure everything is okay then record that data in the system. This audit says in 8 out of ten cases that is not happening in Tennessee.
Debora loveless is the Assistant Director of the State's auditing office. She's concerned the ankle bracelets and the system used to clear alarms is not keeping us safe from paroled perverts. "They're tampering with it, they're trying to take it off, or an alert that they've entered a restricted area where they should not be. And we were concerned that our officer should really pay attention to those alarms and act when they need to act if alarms are telling them something needs to be done."
What needs to be done, according to state auditors is a complete overhauling of the GPS monitoring system, protocols, record keeping and reporting. Which is what the Department of Corrections says is now happening. Dorinda Carter, comm. Dir. TDOC says, "we are of course concerned and we want to make sure that we're doing everything possible to monitor and supervise offenders. we're confident that's happening. there's a step in the process that needs to be simplified and cleared out, just to add that additional assurance to the public that we are doing what we're charged to do." Carter suggests the audit, while scathing, might be a little misleading. She says while alarms were not "cleared", sex offenders were being monitoring and that the 81% fail rate was more about bookkeeping than actual monitoring.
"Once an officer goes through the process of the steps they are to take, once an alarm goes off, then they are to check the box to indicate that each step was followed and what's not been occurring as much as it should have been, perhaps, was that the boxes simply weren't being checked. but that doesn't mean however that the steps in monitoring an offender were not being followed."
Don't tell that to this sexual predator who says he's been near school zones before and never heard from the Department of Corrections or law enforcement. "Well I will go to the grocery store and places like that and my ankle bracelet will go off and they'll call me and tell me I need to leave the place right away. Then I'll go to the doctor and there will be a school right across the street and they won't even call."
State auditors say they were shocked by the sheer number of cases of sex offenders straying into school zones and those alarms not being cleared by law enforcement types. Auditors have made several recommendations to the Department of Corrections to address these issues... training new probation officers, streamlining the process of data entry, for example. And they say they expect a progress report from corrections in March of next year.