Ankle monitors gone for hundreds of sex predators in Georgia

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Key Points
  • 600 sex predators off ankle monitors across Georgia by year’s end.
  • No legal fix from state lawmakers nearly two years later.
  • Police rely on registrations and house checks for predators.

Joseph Park will never forget the round of applause he received on the day he went to the DeKalb County Sheriff’s Office to have his ankle monitor removed. He flashed a smile at the crowd in the sheriff’s office. Like Park, these were convicted sex offenders who were about to be set free from their tracking devices. And Park was the man responsible.

In 2003, Park was arrested and convicted of child molestation for having sex with a 15-year-old girl when he was 50. He took graphic pictures of their intercourse. Several other girls told police he hosted parties at his house, treating underage guests to alcohol and drugs. After serving more than a decade in and out of prison, Park was ordered to wear an ankle monitor for the rest of his life. He soon found himself fighting in court to have the device removed on the grounds that it was an “unreasonable search” prohibited by the Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

Two years ago, the Georgia Supreme Court ruled in his favor, meaning hundreds of formerly convicted sex predators would be freed of monitoring.

“It’s beyond what I could possibly imagine,” Park said, describing his hero’s greeting at the sheriff’s office. “People were thrilled. Having an ankle monitor is a constant misery you can’t get away from.”

Not everybody is so thrilled. Many sex-victim advocates didn’t know about the rule change until State Affairs brought it to their attention. They worry that the absence of ankle monitors will embolden convicted predators to commit more sex crimes.

“I think it’s very upsetting,” said Gayla Nobles, executive director of the nonprofit Southern Crescent Sexual Assault and Child Advocacy Center serving 15 counties south of Atlanta. “We’re not protecting our victims very well by not affording every resource we can by keeping these predators away from innocent victims.”

Local sheriff’s offices in charge of watching convicted predators like Park also feel the strain. Without ankle monitors, they’ve leaned on unannounced house checks and self-registrations to track people that the state has deemed its most dangerous sex offenders. After Park’s case, many sheriffs would like to have the ankle monitors back.

“Anytime that you have a tool like an ankle monitor that can be that exact and can track somebody, it’s obviously helpful,” said Lt. Anthony Cromer with the Floyd County Sheriff’s Office, which supervises around 350 sex offenders including predators.

“These guys get designated as a predator for a reason.”

Joseph Park won a landmark Georgia Supreme Court ruling in 2019 that has led to the removal of ankle monitors for him and hundreds of other convicted sex predators in the state. (Credit: Beau Evans for State Affairs)

Lawmakers slow to act

Roughly 1 in every 450 people in Georgia is a registered sex offender, according to data from the Georgia Bureau of Investigation. Of those, 1,230 have been classified as sexually dangerous predators, meaning they pose the highest risk of committing future crimes.

Sex predators live in communities across the state, clustered mostly in the Atlanta, Savannah and Columbus areas. All but a fraction of Georgia’s 159 counties host at least one predator listed on the state’s sex registry, on top of thousands more sex offenders convicted of less-severe crimes. Due to Park’s case, state officials expect about 600 predators to be freed from their ankle monitors by the end of this year.

Meanwhile, state lawmakers have let nearly two years slip by without passing a legal fix suggested by a state Supreme Court justice, who recommended giving judges more leeway to include lifetime ankle monitors as part of a predator’s sentence. A bill to do exactly that has stumbled twice during legislative sessions in Atlanta. Its author, Rep. Steven Sainz, R-Woodbine, has puzzled over why the bill hasn’t reached the finish line. He’s hopeful for the bill’s chances since it will be carried by one of the governor’s Senate floor leaders, Sen. Bo Hatchett, R-Cornelia, when the legislature reconvenes in January.

But Sainz also points out his bill would not retroactively place GPS devices back on those who’ve had them removed. So the longer lawmakers wait, he says, the more predators in Georgia will walk free without ankle monitors.

“I’ve made it clear every year that we don’t pass this, sentences can’t be modified for the most violent offenders,” Sainz said in a recent interview. “The longer we leave that gap, the more permanent that gap is for those populations.”

With the bill languishing, many advocates feel the state has not done everything it can to protect victims by barring the use of GPS tracking for the most serious sex offenders. The loss of ankle monitors also caught them by surprise. Out of six advocates covering dozens of counties interviewed for this story, none knew that monitors were being removed from predators.

“Without question, it is concerning,” said Ann Burdges, a victims’ advocate in Atlanta who works with the nonprofit End Violence Against Women International.

“It is more a matter of urgency that our state elected officials should prioritize and get some clarity and policy in place to remedy this.”

Ankle Monitor Infographic
SORRB classifies Georgia’s sex offenders according to a risk-level system. (Credit: Brittney Phan for State Affairs)

Search and seizure

How Georgia classifies sex offenders as predators came under sharp scrutiny during Park’s case, echoing legal challenges to ankle monitors that have occurred in several other states.

Since 2006, Georgia’s Sexual Offender Registration Review Board has assumed the task of classifying offenders according to one of three risk levels based on reams of court records, behavioral reports and clinical assessments. Lower-risk offenders, which make up 65% of all classified offenders, tend to lack a criminal history, despite facing convictions for serious crimes such as child molestation and rape. Higher-risk predators often have multiple convictions or accusations while showing a penchant for violence or preying on children.

The goal is to identify which sex offenders have the highest risk for committing additional sex crimes since resources to track dangerous predators are tight and “not all sex offenders are the same,” said Tracy Alvord, the review board’s executive director.

“We’re concerned about the people who are going to prey on our children,” Alvord said in a recent interview. “That’s what we’re looking for. We take this very seriously.”

Only predators, representing the third highest risk level, had to wear ankle monitors regardless of when their sentences ended, including both during and after their probation. Park challenged that system.

Officially labeled a predator in 2011, Park faced the prospect of wearing an ankle monitor for the rest of his life after wrapping up his prison stint and completing his full sentence on a child molestation charge in 2015. The 24/7 tracker saddled him with a kind of unreasonable search in violation of his constitutional privacy rights, Park said. Pledging that he has “no inclination to commit any sex offenses,” Park called the ankle monitor “a fishing expedition” that served no purpose except to harass him.

“That’s police officers in search of a crime without cause for it,” said Park, a retired state government worker who is now 69, said in a recent interview.

The state Supreme Court agreed. Without probable cause for a specific crime, local police could not constantly track a person without running afoul of the U.S. Constitution’s Fourth Amendment, the justices said.

Courts in other states such as Missouri and New Jersey have made similar rulings on ankle monitors for predators in recent years, sparking frustration from many sex-crime survivors who fear less tracking could allow their own attackers to target others.

Chrissie Depre was 18 years old and living in New Jersey in 2000 when a man broke into her apartment and sexually assaulted her. She got a call a couple of years ago that he was out of prison. Since she’s moved away, Depre feels less concerned for her own safety than the chance that someone else might fall prey to her attacker. An ankle monitor could help keep that situation from happening, she said.

“I feel like it would hold them accountable,” Depre said in a recent interview.

“Predators and people that commit these assaults don’t think the way we do, so you never really know. But I do think it would be an extra form of protection for people and the public.”

Georgia’s Sexual Offender Registration Review Board is headquartered in the James H. “Sloppy” Floyd Building office towers across from the State Capitol in Atlanta. (Credit: Beau Evans for State Affairs)

‘Peace of mind’ for sex predators

Many sheriffs and district attorneys in Georgia say they’ve come to grips with the ankle monitors’ loss, noting the need to balance privacy rights with public safety. Some, like Chatham County Sheriff John Wilcher, see little cause to argue with court judgments.

“If it’s court ordered and I take it off, I don’t question none of it,” said Wilcher, whose area has 54 predators on the state registry. “We monitor them as best we can, five days a week. It’s just an ongoing thing about it.”

State law charges sheriff’s offices with keeping tabs on sex offenders who are off probation, totaling hundreds or thousands of people in some areas including higher-risk predators. Despite the legal mandate, sheriffs say they do not receive any state funding to monitor predators.

Most sheriff’s offices in Georgia have funding for just a handful of deputies to make house calls on hundreds of sex offenders in order to determine they haven’t moved without notifying authorities. Predators also must register twice a year under Georgia law.

Wilcher has five officers in Savannah who visit houses five days a week, while other counties like Richmond, Bibb, Floyd, Barrow have one or two officers each. The Muscogee County Sheriff’s Office boosted its patrol staff from one officer to five earlier this year, said spokesman John Wade. Gwinnett County, with roughly 570 registered sex offenders out of prison including 21 predators, has four full-time deputies and one part-time, according to a spokesman.

That staffing is enough to check on every sex offender under their watch at least once a year, oftentimes more than that, assured several sheriffs and investigators. But not having the ankle monitors gives some sheriffs cause for concern when it comes to predators.

“Taking that ability away from us, I’ll be honest with you, it makes the public a little less safe and those they pray on,” said Barrow County Sheriff Jud Smith, whose area has four predators on the registry. “The predators are a higher level of what we want to watch.”

There’s no guarantee that ankle monitors can ever stop a predator from committing a sex crime, authorities and advocates say. Local sheriffs have viewed ankle monitors less as a crime-tracking tool than as a physical reminder for sex predators to think twice before going near a school or playground. But they have helped investigators make arrests in a few recent close-call cases, such as the capture of a Dalton man accused of stalking a high schooler in 2019. Police placed him at the scene of the alleged stalking since, as a registered predator, he was wearing an ankle monitor.

More often, the sheer presence of an ankle monitor creates less “freedom in their mind” for predators since they know police can easily spot where they’ve been, said Lt. Mike Kenirey with the Bibb County Sheriff’s Office.

“(Removing ankle monitors) allows the predator a bit more peace of mind, so to speak,” he said. “So that they could go to an area that they normally wouldn’t go to knowing that they’re being kept track of digitally.”

Long road for survivors

Many district attorneys and police officials say they have not fielded allegations of any predators re-offending since losing their ankle monitors. It’s also rare for victims to be attacked again by their abusers once they have gone to prison, according to several local advocates who work with sex-crime survivors, including children.

But the increasing removal of ankle monitors in Georgia has shaken advocates and survivors who already face an uphill battle in court to secure plea deals or guilty verdicts against predators. To them, dropping the ankle monitors feels something like a slap in the face.

“In my opinion, I would think it would kind of be like having no accountability,” said Susan Schuenemann, director of the Piedmont Rape Crisis Center who herself was the victim of a sex crime in 1985. “I have zero tolerance for people who commit this sort of crime.”

Georgia’s district attorneys are able to seek long prison or probation sentences for the state’s riskiest predators, keeping them under supervision for most of their lives. But many top prosecutors agree sex cases are complicated due to he-said-she-said scenarios, lack of DNA evidence, few witnesses and shame for the victims. Like the sheriffs, many district attorneys would like ankle monitors brought back into the fold as a tool for law enforcement to track predators, particularly due to the challenges of proving sex-crime allegations in the first place.

“I feel like any technological means we can use, we need to use it,” said Columbus-Muscogee District Attorney Mark Jones. “I don’t have a lot of pity for these offenders.”

That’s the opinion of Kimberly Corban. In 2006, a stranger broke through a window in Corban’s apartment while she was a college student and sexually assaulted her. He was arrested three weeks later while trespassing in a nearby apartment gym, taking pictures of sunbathing women, Corban said.

Recently, Corban fought against moves in Colorado’s state legislature to alter treatment requirements for sex offenders before their prison release. Amid changes for ankle monitors, Corban hopes officials in her state and in Georgia will focus more going forward on protecting survivors and the public from dangerous predators.

“What we’re seeing in Georgia, in Colorado and across the country is nit-picking these small things,” Corban said. “They’re trying to grab the public’s emotions or fly so far under the radar that the public doesn’t even know what’s happening.”

“What we’re seeing are offenders and their apologists fighting for things as if the survivors didn’t even exist.”

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