Law enforcement officials say they are still struggling to fix Vermont’s faulty sex-offender registry, which for years has been riddled with missing and inaccurate information.
Testifying before the Joint Corrections Oversight Committee, Public Safety Commissioner Keith Flynn said his agency has made progress since a summer audit discovered a litany of errors with the state’s inventory of 1,200 sex criminals, including omitted offenders, people inaccurately included on the list and offenders incorrectly identified.
One key suggestion that Flynn offered lawmakers is to have judges make a binding decision, upon sentencing, whether or not a defendant should go on the registry, and if so, for how long.
Currently, staffers in the Department of Public Safety, who are not trained lawyers, are making that call. But it’s not a straightforward decision. Vermont’s sex-offender law is more than 30 pages long and includes numerous exemptions.
Many of the errors in the registry have been traced back to faulty decisions by Department of Public Safety employees.
“Our job at public safety is administrative. It’s not interpretative,” Flynn said. “When it becomes interpretative, there are problems. It’s something that should be coming from the bench and shouldn’t be left to an administrative or clerical person in the Department of Public Safety.”
Vermont maintains two registries — one privately held by law enforcement, the other accessible to the public — detailing the location and identity of qualifying sex criminals.
The private registry is more comprehensive; defendants convicted of lesser crimes and defendants younger than 18 years old cannot be included on the public registry.
Earlier this year, the registries flunked their second straight state audit.
The findings were similar to a 2010 audit, which inspired a working group of officials from several agencies to convene to fix the problems. But the group met only twice, kept no minutes and disbanded in 2011. Between the 2010 and 2014 audits, the state spent $400,000 to implement a database that officials said would help fix the problem.
“To have two audits basically say, 'You didn't get it right' — it's a kick in the ass,” State Auditor Doug Hoffer told Seven Days earlier this year.
The mistakes have had severe consequences for the state and for at least one person who was improperly placed on the public registry website.
A Windham County man who was improperly identified as a sex offender was subsequently beaten and harassed by community members. He won a $20,000 settlement after suing the state.
Flynn said his new working group, which includes Department of Corrections commissioner Andy Pallito and members of the Vermont judicial system, is determined to get it right this time.
“We are working on this,” Flynn said. “We are trying to do this in an efficient way that makes sense. We want to get the right thing done."
In the legislation that created the sex-offender public registry, lawmakers forbade listing the offenders’ addresses. (Their towns are currently listed.) Instead, the law created a trigger provision in which addresses would only be posted if the registry passed muster with the state auditor.
Flynn said that when more progress is made in fixing the registry, he will recommend that Vermont begin listing offenders' addresses.
“There will come a point and time I will recommend to the legislature to make the policy decision that we are there,” Flynn said.