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Accuracy of Sex Offender Registries Questioned By GAO

by Matthew T. Clarke

On August 30, 2006, the federal Government Accountability Office (GAO) released a report that questions the accuracy of the sex offender registries being used by the states to track registered sex offenders (RSOs). The chief complaint was that the sex offender databases used to track RSOs depended upon the sex offenders self-reporting their addresses. Thus, if a RSO failed to report a move, the database became inaccurate and there was no systematic way to discover the inaccuracy. Since a RSO?s failure to report a change of address is a felony in most states, this also allowed the crimes to remain undetected.

Between 1994 and 2003, Congress enacted a series of laws that required sex offenders to register with law enforcement agencies and threatened the federal funding of any state that did not set up a sex offender registry. All fifty states now require registration of sex offenders. This led to about one out of every 754 people in the United States being required to register as a sex offender. This is 0.13% of the population of the United States--over 400,000 people nationwide. All RSO are registered in the FBI?s National Sex Offender Registry (NSOR).

The main suggestion of the report was that the National Database of New Hires (NDNH) be used to verify the addresses reported by RSOs. The NDNH is a federal database maintained by the Office of Child Support Enforcement. It contains about 1.35 billion individual employment, unemployment insurance and wage data records on workers in the United States. This data comes from state directories of new hires, state workforce agencies and federal agencies. It is used by state child support agencies to locate parents and enforce child support orders. The federal Department of Justice has access to the NDNH to use in cases involving the abduction of a child and to enforce child custody orders.
The database may also be accessed by agencies attempting to determine a person?s eligibility for federal benefits. It is updated quarterly.

The report noted that using the NDNH to update sex offender addresses would result in a large volume of data exchange which could result in many mismatches and might exceed state resources allocated to the follow up of RSOs? addresses. It could also raise privacy concerns. One specific concern was that successfully matching the records in the two databases requires accurate Social Security Numbers (SSNs) for the RSOs in the NSOR. However, about 21% of the NSOR records contain no SSN and it is unknown how many of the remaining 79% contain accurate SSNs.

The report suggested that Congress grant the authority for the Department of Health and Human Services to share the NDNH data with the FBI for the purpose of locating RSOs whose information in the NSOR is out-of-date, missing or incorrect. It suggested that the FBI conduct a test match of the information in the two databases to determine the actual cost of sharing data and how difficult it would be to match the two databases.
The report, GAO Report # GAO-06-0766 National Sex Offender Registry: New Hires Data. Has Potential for Updating Addresses of Convicted Sex Offenders, is on the PLN website.

Additional Source: Washington Times

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