- Office of State Auditor Suzanne M. Bump
Media Contact for Testimony of Auditor Suzanne M. Bump Before the Joint Committee on Public Safety and Homeland Security
Mike Wessler, Communications Director
Boston — Good morning Chairman Moore, Chairman Naughton, and members of the Committee. I want to thank you for holding this hearing. The issues raised by my office’s recent audit of the Sex Offender Registry Board—or SORB-deserve your scrutiny. They may also compel you to look more broadly at the sex offender registry law and ultimately help make the Commonwealth a safer place.
SORB has been entrusted with an important and difficult task – to classify and track sex offenders and to keep law enforcement, the public, and individual victims apprised of their addresses. Keeping tabs on any segment of the population is not easy, especially when persons might want to keep their whereabouts unknown. But, when SORB does not meet the expectations of lawmakers and the public, it is not simply a story of a bureaucratic deficiency, it is a public safety failure.
And, I need to state at the outset that I find very concerning the administration’s response to this audit, particularly what I regard as the most important of the audit’s three findings.
Our audit found that SORB did not have current addresses for 1,769 offenders who were in violation of reporting requirements. SORB’s response, contained in the audit report and expressed to the media in the wake of this audit is that the obligation to register is on the offenders themselves, and the fault for the failure to have this information falls at the feet of these non-compliant offenders.
SORB is not like the Registry of Motor Vehicles, passively taking information from compliant individuals. It has a statutory responsibility to ensure that information is kept up to date, accurate and secure. Underscoring this affirmative obligation, the Legislature, back in 1999, granted SORB the authority to establish electronic data sharing agreements with any executive branch agency for the purpose of finding current addresses of offenders that are out of compliance with their registration requirements. At the time of the audit, they had yet to connect with DOR or DTA, although they had executed data-sharing agreements, never mind other agencies, like DVS or MassHealth.
Yet, our auditors found that SORB was not using this powerful tool and thus not effectively tracking the whereabouts of sex offenders required to register. The ease with which some unregistered offenders can be found was demonstrated by our auditors, who located 39 of them by checking DTA’s public benefits rolls.
SORB indicates that it does share information and it collaborates with law enforcement agencies, and we do not dispute that they discover the whereabouts of some non-compliant individuals when they are arrested at a later time, but it is wholly inadequate as a means of maintaining the accurate information required by the law.
Further, within this finding is that SORB had not classified 936 convicted sex offenders. This failure to classify these individuals means the public has no information about the whereabouts of individuals who may pose a significant risk of reoffending. Of those 936 individuals that SORB had never classified:
- 129 were convicted of rape of a child with force;
- 53 were convicted of assault with intent to commit rape; and
- 143 were convicted of rape.
- 177 were convicted of indecent assault and battery upon a child.
This reflects an historical problem and what this office believes to be a misreading of the law relating to the classification of individuals whose whereabouts may be unknown. Some of this arises from the fact that SORB did not properly ensure offenders were assigned a final classification before they were released from incarceration. During our one year audit period, we found 57 of the 103 offenders released from incarceration were not classified before their release. Of these, 33 were eventually given final classification, taking an average of 109 days after they were supposed to be classified, with the longest taking 411 days after release. The remaining 24 had not received a final classification at the end of our audit period.
Finally, we examined the impact of the December 2015 SJC decision of John Doe 380316 v. Sex Offender Registry Board, which required SORB to take on the task of reclassifying 378 individuals under the new standard of “clear and convincing evidence.” Governor Charlie Baker pointed to this decision as the reason for SORB’s overall poor performance, but this is wholly separate and discreet from the issues discussed above. SORB’s Hearing Unit conducted approximately 21 decisions per month, or 250 annually, prior to the SJC decision. It is quickly apparent that while the SJC decision did not improve the situation at SORB, it certainly is not the source or even the majority of the agency’s problems. To point to this ruling as the source of the problems is intentionally misleading, and a disservice to the residents of the Commonwealth.
At the time of our audit, there was a backlog of approximately 130 cases. However, an additional backlog was created as there were no hearings held between January and mid-February of 2016 and were pushed back until after March. SORB reported to us that this time was used to educate staff, streamline the process, and resolve issues. This resulted in a very slow process of classifying according to the new standard, only 37 of the 378 offenders in the nine months following this decision. SORB reports that it has picked up the pace, but that is of small consolation to a concerned public.
While it is important to understand where SORB is falling short of its responsibilities, I’m far more concerned with how we can ensure this critical public safety resource meets its stated purpose going forward.
At the most fundamental level, what is needed at SORB is a change of culture and mindset, from one that is passive—managing and processing information that comes to them—to one that is active, in which they seek out information about those who are out of compliance, innovate to overcome challenges they face, and take advantage of the tools and resources at their disposal to ensure they meet their mission.
The agency must also develop policies and procedures to ensure that offenders receive proper classification before they are released from incarceration. These policies and procedures should also provide guidance to staff on how to prioritize the cases of offenders that are nearing their release date and establish procedures and workflows with the Department of Correction to allow them to proactively begin the process within a timeframe that allows them to provide classifications within the established timeframes.
Finally, I want to acknowledge the complex and nuanced challenges that SORB must address regarding notifying offenders of classifications proceedings – especially for offenders convicted when the sex offender registry law first came into existence. However, if SORB currently used all of the tools available to it under the law, including data sharing agreements with other government agencies, which our audit showed it is not, SORB would be in a better position to establish the required notice for some offenders that our audit identified as unclassified.
The public’s right to know about potentially dangerous individuals living in their communities should not be hindered because those individuals refuse to show up to their classification hearings.
I want to thank you again for allowing me to discuss the work of my office, and the actions that can be taken to address the deficiencies this audit highlighted. I intend for the audits, reports, and investigations conducted by my office to serve as tools to make government better, and I am pleased that you as a committee have seen them as such.
As always, my office stands ready to serve as a resource to you on this, or any other issues that come before the Legislature.