Federal grants are providing law enforcement officers with better technology and newer hardware to help streamline the process used to keep tabs on a growing number of registered sex offenders in Mobile County.
According to District Attorney Ashley Rich, there are currently 886 registered sex offenders in Mobile County. Currently, that’s the third-highest concentration in Alabama behind only Montgomery and Jefferson counties, which monitor 989 and 1,492 sex offenders, respectively.“The increase in the number of these sex offenders combined with their likelihood of recidivism places the residents of Alabama at risk, especially our children,” Rich said. “We also expect this number to grow because some who are still incarcerated will have to comply with the Sexual Offender Registration and Notification Act (SORNA) before they are released.”
Passed by Congress as part of the Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act of 2006, SORNA requires almost everyone convicted of a sex crime to register with a law enforcement database in their respective state. The database makes the details of their crime, a current photograph and their address available to the public.
Under Alabama law, a sex offender cannot live within 2,000 feet of a school, daycare or the victim of any sexual offense they were convicted of. In Mobile County, municipal police departments and the Mobile County Sheriff’s Office routinely check on the status of registered sex offenders.
Those officers respond to complaints from citizens, investigate any offender’s failure to report for in-person check-ins that are required every three months and — in some cases — conduct unannounced compliance checks at offenders’ homes.
“The Mobile Police Department and MCSO have an officer dedicated full time to the enforcement of SORNA, and it’s a big job for them to keep track of this many people,” Rich said. “That’s also something that’s determined by these individual departments. They establish their own policies on how often they go out and perform these checks, and some jurisdictions don’t check at all.”
According to Cpl. Daniel Webster, who handles SORNA enforcement for MCSO, local law enforcement agencies make contact with sex offenders at least once every three months — sometimes interacting with as many as six or seven offenders on any given day.
Now, a recent federal grant from the Sentencing Monitoring Apprehending Registering and Tracking (SMART) office, is attempting to lessen some of that burden by providing 77 iPads to officers like Webster throughout the state. Portable and functional, the tablets can be used by officers to remotely access Offender Watch — an online database available to law enforcement — and make real-time field updates about the offenders they interact with on a daily basis.
“They’ll be able to access an offender’s history and have a better understanding of what’s going on and what their behavior has been since they’ve been part of the system,” Rich said. “It also saves a lot of paperwork for the officers because they can update the database immediately, verses writing a paper report and then logging it in later, which can take days.”
Glenn Barton, who oversees SONRA enforcement in the city of Mobile, said putting that information at officers’ fingertips will be “a tremendous help” in the work they perform.
Though the grant originated with SMART, it was passed to local police through the Office of Prosecution Services, which oversees district attorneys throughout the state. While Rich said the new devices will make it easier to ensure that sex offenders are staying in compliance, she said it’s still important for parents to discuss sex offenders with their children.
“Sex offenders exist, and they’re are allowed to live in the community with everybody else,” Rich said. “They’re not going to have a scarlet letter — we’re not doing that, but it is important that we, as families, initiate a conversation around this subject to make sure our young people know what to do if they ever encounter someone who might be a sex offender.”
The Alabama Law Enforcement Agency maintains a searchable database of all the registered sex offenders in the state.
Locally, the Mobile County Sheriff’s Office allows residents to sign up to receive email alerts if a known sex offender locates within a preselected radius of their homes.