June 8, 2012

Texas county to track sex offenders who evacuate before hurricanes

6-8-2012 Texas:

CORPUS CHRISTI, Texas -- There are about 200 sex offenders in Nueces County, Texas, and when a hurricane hits officials plan to know where all of them are.

The Nueces County Community Supervision and Corrections Department has devised a plan to keep tabs on the nearly 5,000 people on probation, including sex offenders, those in drug treatment and violent offenders.

"Naturally, you worry about offenders period," said Javed Syed, department director. "But in times like this, you want to hone in on the sex offenders and the high risk."

Hurricane season began Friday and ends Nov. 30.

Sex offenders are ranked a No. 1 priority because they have a high probability of becoming repeat offenders. Syed said the probation department developed its hurricane plan based on other cities' experiences.

"We learned from New Orleans that sex offenders went everywhere and people lost them," he said of the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

If officials call for an evacuation of the area before a hurricane makes landfall, probationers can leave the city on their own. But probation officers already will know where they are headed.

About two months ago, probations officers and staff gave everyone on probation a form to fill out that detailed where they would go if they evacuated and who probation officers could contact to confirm that.

"We try to do our best to make sure our offenders don't cause any problems during this time of crisis," Syed said.

There are 110 probation officers who supervise probationers. If an officer works with specialized cases, such as sex offenders, then the officer typically oversees about 50 offenders. Officers with regular caseloads are assigned about 140 offenders.

Department officials modeled the Nueces County hurricane plan after other coastal counties affected by hurricanes.

Janis Bane, director of Galveston County adult probation, said when probationers evacuated the island for Hurricane Ike in 2008, it took nearly two months before staff and officers located everyone.

"It wasn't completely their fault that we couldn't locate them," she said. "They evacuated and didn't have a home to come back to. It was just difficult for all of us."

Galveston County residents were not allowed to return to the island for 11 days after the storm hit.

Bane said even though it was a challenge to locate most probationers, Galveston officials knew exactly where the sex offenders evacuated because they filled out forms before hurricane season.

"We knew ahead of time where they were going," she said. "Now we have the same information for everybody."

Nueces County took Galveston's idea and went a step further.

Starting this month, officers will randomly check probationers' evacuation information to confirm they have a place to stay.

Syed said probationers are not allowed to evacuate to shelters, but it might happen. If it does, they are required to call a 1-800 number set up by the county and leave a message detailing where they will be.

"Then there's no excuse for them not to tell us what's going on," Syed said.

Depending on the probationers' risk level, probation officers may let them stay at the shelter.

One exception is for sex offenders, who would never be allowed to stay at a shelter. If found, they would be picked up by that county's law enforcement and housed with that county's probation department.

After an evacuation, sex offenders are required to register at the nearest police station and explain their case.

Department supervisor Adam Zamora said it could take up to seven days before probation officers start calling their assigned probationers, but other probation departments also can help.

If offenders do not comply with evacuation regulations, officials will file violations, just as they would in an everyday circumstance.

"We're learning from the other counties and each year we're better prepared," Syed said. "This county as a whole is much better prepared." ..Source.. by MICHELLE VILLARREAL

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