Flaw in JeffCo sex offender registry allows 3 to reside too close to Birmingham elementary school

BIRMINGHAM, AL (WBRC) - A man convicted of raping a 9-year old girl successfully registered a home address about 1,000-feet away from a Birmingham elementary school, which is only half the distance required by state law.

A spokesperson for the Jefferson County Sheriff's Office initially said the offender could not be forced to move, but later advised that corrective action will be taken. The offender "will be served with a letter advising them that the school is closer than 2,000 feet and that they have seven days to register an approved address," according to an emailed statement.

An On Your Side investigation of public records reveals a flaw in the Jefferson County Sex Offender Registry allowed that man and two other convicted sex offenders to register home addresses too close to Hemphill Elementary School in Birmingham.  The finding prompts the relocation of two offenders and an internal review of the database's mapping.

State law generally mandates that sex offenders reside more than 2,000 feet away from schools.

"We're alarmed – we take this very seriously," said Mike Cormaci of Watch Systems, the third-party contractor maintaining the sex offender registry for Alabama.

Public records show the company was paid $285,500 in 2016.

Based in Louisiana, Cormaci says Watch Systems manages sex offender registries for more than 4,000 law enforcement agencies across the country.

Sex offenders residing in Jefferson County are required to register a home address with the Jefferson County Sheriff's Office.  And, if they reside inside a city with a population greater than 5,000 - like Birmingham - they must also register with the local police department.

"You come in and register quarterly so we can keep up with that registry," explained Sergeant Kimberly Grant. She oversees the county sheriff's sex offender unit.

Offenders living inside Birmingham must check-in quarterly with the police department, too.

The three offenders registering addresses too close to Hemphill Elementary registered with both Jefferson County Sheriff's Office and Birmingham Police, and are required to check-in quarterly with each agency.

To initially register a residence, offenders present an address to law enforcement for analysis by the Watch Systems' database, called "Offender Watch."

Watch Systems programs the database with locations of schools, daycares, and foster homes. It alerts law enforcement when an offender's address falls within a prohibited zone of closer than 2,000 feet to these places.

But when searching the three registered addresses that are closer than 2,000 feet to Hemphill Elementary, the database did not indicate there was a problem.

"For some reason, that school is not on that system and we'll have to immediately fix that," said Grant.

"After conducting a basic investigation on our geocoding, we found that the geocoder placed the [school] address in the wrong spot," explained Cormaci.

"Geocoding" is matching an address with geographical coordinates on a map.  Offender Watch geocoded - or mapped - Hemphill Elementary School's address about 2.5 miles away from its actual location, even though the address provided Watch Systems was correct.

When law enforcement searched the residential addresses, the database did not detect the school's actual location because it was mapped miles away.

Cormaci says this type of mistake in mapping is unusual.  "This particular address of the school scored a very high score of reliability when we initially geocoded it," he explained.  The mistake happened in December 2015.

"In over 10 years, we've never had a problem with their mapping being inaccurate or incorrect," said Lieutenant Scott Thurmond, Birmingham Police.

After an address is registered, law enforcement conducts in-person address verification visits.  The responsibility to verify addresses falling within Birmingham falls to the Birmingham Police.

Public records show that address for each of the three offenders was verified in October and November, 2016.

Thurmond says he's not concerned that officers conducting those in-person verifications did not notice that the offenders lived too close to the elementary school.

"The concern is with the contractor. That would be the concern I have, is that the contractor's software failed," Thurmond said.

The in-person verifications, conducted to ensure the offender resides at the provided address, are not intended to measure the distance between the address and a school.

"We don't go out and measure with tape measure and things like that, we rely on the software," Thurmond explained.

One of the offenders, registering an address fewer than 1,500 feet away from the elementary school, was convicted of two counts of second degree sexual abuse.  His victims were fifteen and sixteen-year-old teenaged girls.  Public records initially reflected in mid-January that the offender lived at the home; but by publication of this story, the sheriff's office says the offender has been jailed since November 18, 2016 due to violations of the sex offender registry.  He will not able to return to the address upon his release, according to Sgt. Jack Self with the Jefferson County Sheriff's Office.

Another offender, convicted of first degree rape of a 15-year-old girl, registered an address that is 1,508 feet away from the school.  He will be served with a letter advising him that the school is closer than 2,000 feet and has seven days to register an approved address, Self explained in an email.

The third offender registered an address in June 2016 that is 1,022 feet away from the school; so close that parts of the structure can be seen when standing on the sidewalk adjacent to the school property.  He was convicted of first degree rape of a nine-year-old girl. This offender will also be served with a letter advising he has seven days to register an approved address.

Cormaci says no one had contacted him about a mistaken mapping of the school until the reporting of this story.

"We're actually going back, immediately right now, [to check] all addresses within Jefferson County, including the municipalities.  And then over the next number of days, we'll be going over the addresses we have for schools, churches, daycare centers, in Alabama," he says.  "I'm glad you brought it to our attention so we can make the changes."

Members of the public can search for registered sex offenders by name or address at http://www.sheriffalerts.com/cap_main.php?office=53840 or https://app.alea.gov/community/wfsexoffendersearch.aspx.

"The community is very valuable in making sure the offenders are where they are as well," said Grant. "We work together to keep our community safe."

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