County begins online tracer

LAWRENCEVILLE - Call it "To Track a Predator."

Gwinnett officials have turned the tool so commonly used to prey on children - the Internet - into a high-tech tracking device for use on convicted sex offenders themselves.

On Tuesday, the Gwinnett County Sheriff's Department launched a free online program called "Offender Watch" that allows Gwinnettians to instantly track how closely registered sex offenders live to them.

It's easy as type, point, click and know.

By typing in a confidential address, residents can instantly locate all sex offenders living within their "sphere of influence" - a two-mile radius of a home. Patrons of the site can also sign up for e-mail alerts sent when an offender relocates to the area.

Sheriff Butch Conway called the program evidence of his department's continued vigilance in tracking offenders. In 1997, the department was among Georgia's first to publish offenders' photos and addresses online, he said.

"Offender Watch is just one more tool in our effort to keep the public safe," Conway said.

Eighty percent of addresses in Gwinnett have at least one convicted sex offender living within a mile radius, according to the Sheriff's Department.

An experimental online search using the Daily Post's office address pinpointed 18 sex offenders - with crimes ranging from indecent exposure and statutory rape to aggravated child molestation - living in 10 nearby locations.

A simple mouse-click on each of the listed names revealed a mini-profile of each offender, including a photo, list of charges and date of conviction.

The cost of Offender Watch to taxpayers is nil, said Sheriff's Department spokeswoman Stacey Bourbonnais.

A Department of Justice grant paid for the implementation of the $15,000 program, with funding left over for surveillance equipment and fingerprinting machines for the sex offender unit.

Bourbonnais said the grant came through a program known as SMART - Sex Offender Sentencing, Monitoring, Apprehending, Registering and Tracking. Its total worth exceeded $150,000, she said.

Access the Offender Watch program at the Sheriff's Department's Web site, www.gwinnettcountysheriff.com. The link appears at the bottom of the homepage.