‘Drastic increase’ in sexual crimes on kids leads to new Jackson County task force

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 JACKSON COUNTY, Miss.

A rise in child sexual abuse throughout Jackson County is prompting officials to pull together and create solutions to protect children from sexual-related offenses.

Jackson County District Attorney Tony Lawrence said a task force designed to investigate crimes such as molestation, sexual battery, rape and child pornography is currently in preliminary stages.

“There seems to be a drastic increase, and we have to do something about it,” Lawrence said.

Lawrence said agents assigned to the task force would receive training that deals specifically with sex crimes committed against children and would include officers from Jackson County, Ocean Springs, Pascagoula, Gautier and Moss Point.

“This would give officers in each city and the county a larger pool to draw resources from,” Lawrence said.

In addition, Lawrence recently designated an assistant district attorney, investigator and administrative assistant to investigate and prosecute child-related sex crimes.

“It’s gotten so bad that I had to dedicate a portion of my staff to work nothing but them,” he said.

The Jackson County Sheriff’s Department is not much different.

“It’s not necessarily that there are more incidents,” said Jackson County Sheriff Mike Byrd. “People seem to be reporting it more. People used to be scared or embarrassed to come forward, but now they want justice.”

A sex crime team consists of three investigators who keep track of the county’s 196 registered sex offenders and investigates new cases of sexual abuse, Byrd said. Of those sex offenders registered, 103 were convicted of sexual crimes against children.

“Technology is catching up with these offenders, too,” Byrd said.

According to statistics released from the Sheriff’s Criminal Investigation Division that houses the sex crime unit, 75 sex crimes were reported in 2009. They included:

  • 30 reports resulting in child molestation charges;
  • three sexual battery against a child arrests;
  • three child porn offenders;
  • one child rape case; and
  • 18 statutory rapes.

Pascagoula Police reported eight child molestation cases in 2009. Ocean Springs reported five arrests, and Gautier reported three. The Moss Point Police Department’s records were unavailable.

This year, the Sheriff’s Department has arrested seven child molestation suspects and three men accused of possession of child pornography.

Two of those arrests were made Thursday night and included Robert Griffin, a 39-year-old teacher and basketball coach at St. Martin High School, and Mark Bowie, a 41-year-old computer technician with the Jackson County School District.

Griffin was charged with child molestation and the sexually battery of a child. The 16-year-old girl he’s accused of abusing was one of his students and was coached by him on the basketball team.

Bowie was charged with 50 counts of possession of child pornography.

Sheriff’s Detective Hope Thornton said the department relies on every resource possible to stay ahead of registered and potential sex offenders, but until the state laws and funding are strengthened it will be difficult.

“Funding is a major problem,” she said. “We’d love to be able to pass out fliers in neighborhoods to let people know there’s a sex offender living there, but I had one offender move 16 times last year. By the time I got one flier out, he would have moved. It can get expensive, and we just don’t have the funds.”

State Sen. Michael Watson, R-Pascagoula, said he’s planning a round-table discussion this summer with Lawrence, Byrd and local officers to develop legislation to try solve issues on a state level.

“This is scary,” he said. “We’ve got to start exploring what we can do now, before it gets worse.”

By Cherie Ward

News from The Mississippi Press 

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