Picking Up the Trail

Crime analysis, agency cooperation and centralized data aid in proactive enforcement of sex offender/predator statutes in Pinellas County, Fla.

by / October 1, 2001
When a sexual predator murdered seven-year-old Megan Kanga in her New Jersey neighborhood in 1994, it prompted nationwide demand for tighter control of known sex offenders and predators. The resulting Megans Law set forth requirements for states to manage and track sex offender/predator parolees.

To date, all 50 states have enacted variations of Megans Law for tracking sex offenders and enforcing restrictions on where they can live. Pinellas County, Fla., is among the most successful jurisdictions using technology to enforce the law.

Florida statutes prohibit offenders from living within a 1,000-foot radius of sensitive facilities such as schools, day-care centers, home-care centers, beaches, parks or any place where children congregate. Therefore, before an offender can move from city to city in Florida, into Florida from another state or upon release from prison, the Florida Department of Corrections (FDOC) or the county sheriffs office must verify that the intended address is outside the 1,000-foot buffer. If so, the agency notifies all sensitive facilities within a one-mile radius that a sex offender or predator will be living in the area.

Notification includes the persons name, address, photograph and nature of conviction. In the case of sexual predators, the notification goes to all residents within a one-mile radius of the intended address. A probation officer from Corrections is required to make periodic contact with the individual to verify he or she is living at the address listed in the departments files and not violating conditions imposed by the courts.

Pinellas County is one of Floridas smallest, but most densely populated counties, with more than 3,000 people per square mile. The county had about 800 resident offenders and predators in 2000. For the county, a tourist destination just north of Tampa, offender/predator management and tracking was a labor-intensive operation carried out by the county sheriffs office and FDOC.

To ensure intended addresses were not within 1,000 feet of sensitive facilities, deputies had to go to the property and take measurements by walking with a distance wheel. If probation officers in the field needed maps or reports, they had to return to the office. They also had to go to the assessors office to get plat maps and to the licensing board to get a list of sensitive facility addresses and contacts.

The process did not stop there; officers then had to write up a notification and either mail or deliver it to all facilities within the one-mile buffer. "[It] was a management nightmare," said Tim Burns, technology project manager for the Pinellas County Department of Justice Coordination (PCDJC).

The Enforcer
In the late 1980s, Pinellas County law enforcement agencies, municipal police departments, FDOC and other county departments began building individual databases and map layers. By the mid-1990s, however, law enforcement agencies recognized the benefits of sharing data. With the cooperation and support of the various agencies, PCDJC began coordinating data sharing efforts and working with Autodesk to develop a Web-based crime analysis system capable of accessing and integrating data in a central repository. Dubbed Enforcer, the system was built around Vision and MapGuide, Autodesks GIS products, as well as Oracle and ColdFusion technologies.

Today, the Enforcer crime-analysis and tracking system is automating the labor-intensive processes involved in proactively managing the countys current 900 registered sex offenders and predators. A sex predator/offender-tracking (SPOT) unit within the county sheriffs department develops maps and reports that are sent to probation officers in the field via the countys intranet. Senior probation officer Tony Guagnini, who is also the liaison between the FDOC and the sheriffs office, directs the unit. "The whole purpose of this arrangement is to enhance the working relationship between the various entities, exchange information that was formerly kept by individual departments and get it to officers in the field as quickly as possible," Guagnini said.

When the SPOT unit receives notice of a proposed destination address for an offender or predator on parole, Guagnini pulls up a map of the area, accesses a list of sensitive facilities and their addresses and draws a 1,000-foot buffer around the address in question. If any facilities are within the buffer, the move is denied. Otherwise, Guagnini will use the proposed address as the centroid of a buffer with a one-mile radius, pull up a list of all sensitive facilities within that area and generate a notice and mailing informing them that an offender or predator will be living at that address. Guagnini pointed out that Florida statutes also require predators to wear a GPS/transmitter anklet, which gives FDOC the persons location, accurate to within a few meters, in realtime.

Guagnini said accuracy of the GIS-generated buffer has already been tested in the courts. "In one case, a predator hired an attorney who hired a surveyor, only to find the buffer was within several inches of where we said it was. The source of the base map on which the buffers are drawn is county appraisers parcel map, based on survey data. We take the centroid of the parcels on that map and geocode them."

Guagnini said the automated processes have enabled probation officers to keep abreast of the characteristically mobile offender population. "Offenders move mainly for economic or social reasons; the person may not be able to find a job, or community pressures may force them out. In Florida anyone can access the states public database of registered offenders and sexual predators."

Expanding Capabilities
Evans said in addition to adding wireless capability to allow probation officers in patrol cars to receive maps and reports, the county will expand Enforcer so that it automatically generates buffer zones and mailing lists to sensitive facilities and to every resident within a one-mile radius of a sexual predators home. The officer will only need to enter an address.

Although it is too soon for quantifiable results, Enforcer has given Pinellas County law enforcement the tools needed to proactively control and track sex offenders and predators. "We cant say that because of the technology certain crimes didnt occur," Guagnini said. "We just know that prior to Enforcer, it was a lot more difficult to manage the sex offenders. Quite often we would find out after they moved into our area that there were restrictions on them. After that, it took a long time to get them to move. Now, if there is a problem with a proposed address, we can prevent them from coming here before they have the opportunity to move."