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Vermont Sex Offender Registry's Problems Persist 

click to enlarge THOM GLICK
  • thom glick

In May 2007, a Windham County teenager was convicted of having sexual contact with a 13-year-old girl when he was 17. He pleaded guilty. At his sentencing, a judge explicitly said the law called for him to be kept off the Vermont sex-offender registry because of his age at the time of the offense.

Nonetheless, at the insistence of a probation officer, the Vermont Crime Information Center, which manages the registry, posted his name on the registry. The man, then 21, had no warning, according to a lawsuit.

He received harassing phone calls, according to the suit. He couldn't get a job. A group of men smashed a beer bottle on his head, saying it was because of what he had done.

He complained to VCIC staff, but his profile remained on the public site for two years. He sued the state in federal court, and eventually recovered $20,000. His information was taken down, but not before private websites captured his image and profile. You can still find his info on those sites.

The young man's plight is not unique.

In 2010, an audit of Vermont's sex-offender registry found a litany of errors — including offenders missing from the registry, offenders incorrectly identified and people wrongfully branded as offenders — that brought the reliability of the entire program into question.

In response, the state spent more than $400,000 to implement a new database and pledged to hold regular interagency meetings to ensure a better flow of information.

Four years after that first report, the state released a new audit of the program. Its findings?

Once again: a litany of errors — including offenders missing from the registry, offenders incorrectly identified and people wrongfully branded as offenders — that brings the reliability of the entire program into question.

Of 58 offender records that auditors randomly examined in detail, all but one had mistakes. While some of the errors were relatively minor — misspelling of names, wrong dates of convictions — nearly 11 percent of all 2,536 offender records had "critical errors."

Auditors found many of the recommendations made in 2010 had been ignored or only partially implemented.

"We would have hoped they would be further along at this point," Vermont Auditor Doug Hoffer said. "I think they understand the need to get back together and get this done. To have two audits basically say, 'You didn't get it right,' it's a kick in the ass."

Jeffrey Wallin, the VCIC director, acknowledged the mistakes but said that progress has been made since 2010. He said VCIC has struggled to interpret a convoluted law, has relied on flawed data from outside agencies and has been handicapped by poor technology that is only now falling into place.

"We do see where there is room for improvement, but improvements have been made over the last four years, and we do that with very limited resources," Wallin said. "We are ready to work with our partners to improve the system."

Vermont created a registry of sex offenders in 1996 as part of an escalating national crackdown on sex crimes.

At first, only law-enforcement officials could access the information. Then, in 2004, legislators created a second registry, a public one, to be made available on the internet and managed by VCIC, which is part of the Department of Public Safety. There are more people on the private registry than the public registry. Some lesser crimes, including lewd and lascivious conduct, do not merit inclusion on the public site. Additionally, offenders younger than age 18 are not supposed to appear on the public list.

The public registry, which contains records of more than 1,172 offenders, provides each offender's age, physical description, crime, conviction date and mug shot, and allows the public to search for individuals by town or county. The most serious offenders are required to be on the registry for life, but most are registered for 10 years after they leave prison or probation.

In 2009, a 12-year-old Braintree girl was raped and murdered by her uncle, a repeat sex offender. Michael Jacques' heinous crime prompted lawmakers to expand the list of offenses that merit inclusion on the public site. They also decided that offenders' home addresses should be made available.

Concerned that inaccurate addresses could potentially cause harm, lawmakers added a trigger provision to the legislation: Street addresses would only be posted if the Vermont state auditor examined the registry and determined that VCIC was up to the task.

Apparently, it isn't.

When the 2010 audit report found that data was largely entered manually and "controls were not always documented or consistently applied," according to former Vermont auditor Tom Salmon, the state invested more than $400,000 — more than half from a federal grant — to buy OffenderWatch, a database built by WatchSystems LLC. In a 2013 press release, officials praised the new registry management system for mimimizing "manual entry," saying it would "improve the quality and accuracy of the information maintained by the database."

Additionally, following an auditor's recommendation, the Department of Corrections and the judiciary — the agencies that collect data on sex offenders — and the VCIC agreed to meet regularly to smooth data flow and reduce errors.

Last week, the Vermont Auditor's Office released the results of its follow-up exam. They weren't much better.

Hoffer found:

18 people listed on the public registry who shouldn't have been. That includes nine people who committed lesser offenses and nine more who were either still in prison or whose 10-year registration period had lapsed.

53 people who qualified for posting on the public registry but were not included.

20 people identified as lifetime registrants in the private registry but who were eligible to come off after 10 years.

Why have the mistakes persisted?

Of 13 recommendations made to improve the system in 2010, only three have been fully implemented, Hoffer concluded. VCIC is still entering information by hand and is guided by poor or nonexistent procedures.

The working group had convened twice, but kept no minutes and disbanded in spring 2011.

More significantly, OffenderWatch has not been a panacea. Many key decisions are still not automated, leaving VCIC staff to enter information about offenders as they always have: by hand, using their own judgment to interpret the 41-page law guiding the registry's requirements.

Perhaps the most important decision — whether an offender should be posted on the public registry — is made by an individual unchecked by either OffenderWatch, which lacks the system logic to automate that decision, or a human supervisor.

Furthermore, the person making that crucial decision has little more than institutional memory to go on, because VCIC has not developed complete written procedures, the auditor found. In many cases, VCIC staffers are simply winging it.

For example, in 2010, VCIC employees were under the impression that only those convicted in Vermont courts could be subject to lifetime registration. In 2013, VCIC employees had come to believe that out-of-state offenders, too, could be made to register for life. (The answer is still being debated.)

By law, sex offenders who are no longer on probation, but who are still required to undergo treatment, must submit a form to VCIC certifying that they are doing so. If they don't, their profiles can be added to the public registry.

But VCIC has no process for tracking the forms and no way of knowing if those offenders are fulfilling their treatment obligations, both audits found.

Similarly, sex offenders are required to submit an annual form to VCIC verifying their addresses. If they don't, VCIC is supposed to notify the local prosecutor to obtain an arrest warrant.

Between March and November of 2013, the auditor randomly examined the records of 15 people who presumably had their addresses verified: Six had actually failed to send a letter. In at least 49 cases, VCIC never notified prosecutors when offenders' didn't register.

Wallin said that most of the problems stem from VCIC's adjustment to the OffenderWatch system.

"It's a significant challenge," Wallin said. "We're still in the process of hammering out the procedures."

Moreover, VCIC may be fundamentally ill-suited to the task of managing a proactive, highly regulated police tool. VCIC mostly crunches crime data and issues statistical reports. Managing the registry and interpreting a law that even veteran defense attorneys say is confusing requires legal judgment.

"If you're looking at the statutes, they're not straightforward to begin with," Wallin said. "There's a fair amount of time spent on trying to determine whether or not the individual is compelled by law to register."

The problems fuel concerns that the registry may do as much harm as good. Some argue that it offers the illusion of security with little understanding of the nature of most sex crimes.

Most studies show that between 80 and 90 percent of sex crimes are committed not by strangers, but by people whom the victims know well.

"I don't think it does anything to protect the public," said Seth Lipschutz, an attorney with the Vermont Prisoners' Rights Office, who has represented hundreds of sex offenders. "In every era, there are people that society loves to hate. Whether it's African Americans, Jews ...people from various ethnic groups ... Now we have a PC society. Who is left to hate anymore? Pretty much nobody, except terrorists and sex offenders. They're kind of the witches of our era."

The original print version of this article was headlined "The Vermont Sex-Offender Registry Flunks Another Audit"
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Mark Davis

Mark Davis

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Mark Davis is a Seven Days staff writer.

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