GREENFIELD — Hancock County sex offenders who surf the Web will soon find their online activity monitored by their probation officers.
Newly purchased software accompanied by devices that attach to sex offenders’ computers will allow the Hancock County Probation Department to access a list of every site visited and Web search made at any time while the offender is on probation.
The probation department has set standards for Internet use for the sex offenders they oversee. It lists a variety of restrictions, including prohibiting offenders from accessing social media sites, chat rooms or pornography.
The $1,119 yearly cost of the new program is covered by the Hancock County Prosecutor’s Office diversion fund. Offenders who want to have Internet access must pay a $30 sign-up fee, then $30 per month to use the software, in addition to paying for their Internet service.
There are currently 15 people on probation for sex-related crimes. Letters explaining the new procedures for Web use were expected to be mailed to them today.
Probation Officer Mary Kay Dobbs, who oversees the county’s sex offenders, said the new program will fill a gap in the department’s ability to supervise.
It also has several failsafe features aimed at preventing misuse.
For example, an alert is sent to the probation department any time an offender tries to remove the device or plug in other devices, such as an external hard drive.
Users will also be required to scan their fingerprint in order to log on, and the system will prompt them at random times to repeat the process as long as they stay on the Web.
That prevents offenders from saying someone else is the household accessed improper material, Dobbs said.
But specified websites aren’t the only things probation officers will be monitoring. Dobbs cited the example of a federal probation officer who discovered an offender had searched for the officer’s home address and tried to look it up on Google maps.
“You wouldn’t think to block that,” Dobbs said.
Probation officers have weekly appointments with sex offenders and also conduct unannounced home visits each month. But when it comes to monitoring their Web activity, officers have long depended on the honor system, Chief Deputy Probation Officer Wayne Addison said.
“This way, we don’t have to trust ‘em,” he said. “These are people that … have hurt people. Any tool we can have that makes it that much safer for our kids in our community, that’s what we’re after.”
Those convicted of sex crimes have restricted Internet access to deter them from targeting new victims online, Hancock County Prosecutor Michael Griffin said.
“Oftentimes, Internet websites are the way that these folks meet people,” said Griffin, whose office agreed to fund the program for the first three years. “They don’t have to use eHarmony or Match.com. They go to blogs and various other kinds of sites and try to find potential victims.”
Officials know the system isn’t foolproof – there’s nothing to stop offenders from accessing the Internet at a public library or by way of a friend’s smartphone – but it’s a step in the right direction, they say.
“I think it’s going to make a tremendous difference,” Griffin said. “We can see them at appointments and talk to them all day long, but we don’t know what they’re doing at night, and that’s really the key. If they access sites they shouldn’t access, then they’ll violate their probation and go back to the clink.”
The system should be implemented within the next two to three weeks, Dobbs said.
“It’s gonna make me sleep better at night,” she said. “I’ve done this long enough to know we cannot make people change their behavior, … but this is just an additional security.”