Tracking sex-crime offenders gets trickier
Violator registry is growing as tech-savvy predators put a greater burden on officers
Monday, November 23, 2009
The pursuit of Lee Shelton began the moment the convicted sex offender was released from prison.
It ended months later with a U.S. Marshals Service helicopter hovering near a D.C. junior high school as Shelton kissed a 14-year-old boy. In between, authorities used two Global Positioning System devices to help track him, learned he was online at the library and seized a secret laptop with a power source in the trunk of his car. His parole was revoked, and he is back in jail.
Shelton, who originally was convicted of molesting boys at the National Air and Space Museum and on the grounds of the Washington Monument, is one of thousands of sex offenders accused of similar crimes after their release from prison or while on probation. His parole violation illustrates the challenges of monitoring hundreds of thousands of offenders.
The nationwide crackdown on child pornography and other sex offenses has created severe manpower shortages and technology challenges for probation officers, police and federal agents struggling to track offenders who are jumping online with cellphones and portable game systems and flocking to social networking and other sites, where children or pornography can easily be found.
There are more than 716,000 registered sex offenders nationwide, according to the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children, a 78 percent increase since 2001, and that does not include all offenders because some crimes do not require registration. Sex-offender registries have grown even faster in the Washington area, with more than 24,000 people listed. Not all receive the scrutiny given to such offenders as Shelton.
The focus on crimes against children that began in the Bush administration shows no sign of abating under President Obama. Federal child sexual exploitation prosecutions are up 147 percent since 2002, and the Justice Department is hiring 81 more prosecutors for these cases. Funding for task forces that bring charges in state courts rose this year from $16 million to $75 million.
But many of those offenders are now leaving prison, even as revenue-strapped states are cutting the budgets of probation departments. In Virginia, probation and parole cuts this year totaled nearly $10 million, including $500,000 for electronic monitoring of sexually violent predators. Maryland also has cut its budget.
"The burden on probation and parole officers is going to explode," said Ernie Allen, the national center's president.
The monitoring of virtually all sex offenders is required by law when they are on probation or parole.
The problem has gained national attention with the discovery of 10 bodies and a skull at a registered sex offender's home in Cleveland and revelations that Jaycee Lee Dugard was kidnapped at age 11 in 1991 and allegedly held captive at a California sex offender's house until her reappearance in August. Officers had visited both homes and noticed nothing wrong.
Those cases underscore a troubled registry system that has been the public face of sex-offender monitoring. An estimated 100,000 offenders do not comply with registration requirements. Law enforcement doesn't know where many of them are.
But the most alarming development for officers is proliferating electronic gadgets and the temptations they pose to sex offenders. A man on probation in Iowa for molesting a 9-year-old girl, for example, was recently caught downloading pornographic images of a young girl on his PlayStation Portable -- while walking to his probation appointment.