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Technology, Budget Cuts Make Sex Offender Monitoring More Difficult

by Matt Clarke

Technological innovations and tech-savvy sex offenders, combined with budget cuts, have made it harder for law enforcement authorities to monitor the nation’s estimated 716,750 registered sex offenders (RSOs).

That does not include all RSOs, as some are not required to register and around 100,000 have failed to comply with registration requirements and are being sought by law enforcement. According to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC), the number of sex offenders has increased 78% since 2001.

Part of the reason for the rise in RSOs is the Bush administration’s emphasis on prosecuting sex crimes against children, which has been re-emphasized by the Obama administration, driving up child sexual exploitation prosecutions by 147% since 2002. In the first year of the Obama administration funding for child sex abuse task forces rose from $16 million to $75 million, and 81 new Department of Justice prosecutors were hired to handle a larger number of sex offender cases.

While the federal government has increased spending on child sex abuse prosecutions, budget cuts among the states have hampered efforts at monitoring RSOs. For example, Virginia cut its budget for parole and probation departments by $10 million in 2009, including a $500,000 decrease for the program that electronically monitors violent sexual predators.

“The burden on probation and parole officers is going to explode,” said NCMEC president Ernie Allen.

The budgetary problem is compounded by laws that require registration for all sex offenders rather than only those who are the most dangerous or most likely to reoffend, which stretches scarce resources.

“It’s causing the workload to be such that you can’t keep up with the problem people,” said criminal justice professor Jeffery Walker at the University of Arkansas-Little Rock. “The question is how do you separate those who do not appear to be a problem and those who are hiding something?”

Further complicating the monitoring of RSOs is the proliferation of electronic sources and devices that sex offenders can use to access pornography, including illegal child pornography – such as chat rooms, instant messaging, texting, email, cell phones, web cams and social networking sites like MySpace and Facebook.

A District of Columbia police detective was surprised to be having an online conversation with a church deacon who had recently been convicted for sending child porn to the same detective. An investigation revealed the former deacon was using a smuggled cell phone to access the Internet from his cell in the D.C. Correctional Treatment Facility, where he was awaiting sentencing. Another RSO, on probation for molesting a 9-year-old girl, was caught downloading child porn to his PlayStation Portable as he was walking to a probation meeting.

One option available to law enforcement officials is computer monitoring, which involves installing software on a sex offender’s computer. The software records and reports every keystroke, email, chat, program accessed and Internet site visited, and provides remote monitoring of computer use. However, the Achilles heel of computer monitoring is that it is not available for non-computer electronic devices such as cell phones and game systems; further, it doesn’t prevent an RSO from using a second, unreported computer or from accessing someone else’s computer system or public computers at a library.

Consequently, some law enforcement officials say nothing can replace home visits, vigilance and instinct when it comes to keeping an eye on sex offenders. But that only works when such monitoring is done competently. For example, Phillip Garrido faithfully registered as a sex offender in California for 10 years while sexually abusing Jaycee Lee Dugard, whom he had kidnapped and held in a tent in his backyard, despite home visits by parole and sheriff’s officers. [See: PLN, Dec. 2009, p.48].

Even GPS technology is insufficient, as monitoring is not always done in real-time and does not prevent crimes by RSOs, only provides evidence after an offense has occurred.
[See, e.g.: PLN, Dec. 2009, p.20]. When 13-year-old Alycia Nipp’s body was found in a field in Vancouver, Washington on February 22, 2009, it was later discovered that she had been killed by Darrin Sanford, a Level 3 sex offender who was on GPS monitoring at the time. The GPS data placed him at the scene of the murder; Sanford pleaded guilty and was sentenced to life without parole.

“You have to use [GPS] very responsibly,” said Peter Ibarra, a sociologist at the University of Illinois-Chicago. “It’s a technology that cannot stand alone, especially if you’re thinking about using it with offenders who imperil the public.”

Connecticut officials have reevaluated the use of GPS to monitor sex offenders as a result of errors, signal loss and tampering. “To some extent, it’s been oversold and
misunderstood,” stated Bill Carbone, director of the Court Support Services Division of Connecticut’s Judicial Branch. “I think it is a tool – not the sole tool – needed for proper supervision of offenders.”

Sources: Washington Post, USA Today,

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