Hard to track sex offenders as they harness tech gadgets

WASHINGTON — The pursuit of Lee Shelton began the moment the 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 track him, learned he was online at the library and seized a secret laptop with a power source in the trunk of his car. He is back in jail.

Shelton, who originally was convicted of molesting boys at the National Air and Space Museum and near the Washington Monument, is one of thousands of sex offenders accused of similar crimes after their release from prison or while on probation. His case illustrates the challenges of monitoring hundreds of thousands of offenders.

Staffing shortages

The nationwide crackdown on child pornography and other sex offenses has created severe personnel shortages and technology challenges for probation officers, police and federal agents struggling to track offenders who are jumping online with cell phones 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, 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.

Federal child sexual exploitation prosecutions are up 147 percent since 2002. 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.

"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 when they are on probation or parole.

The problem has gained national attention with the discovery of 10 bodies at a registered sex offender's home in Cleveland and accusations that Jaycee Lee Dugard was kidnapped at age 11 in 1991 and held captive at an Antioch sex offender's house until this 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 offenders. A man on probation in Iowa for molesting a 9-year-old, for example, was recently caught downloading pornographic images of a girl on his PlayStation Portable — while walking to his probation appointment.

Sometimes, offenders cannot be monitored even while in custody. David L. Franklin, a church deacon, pleaded guilty in federal court to sending child pornography to an undercover D.C. police detective. While awaiting sentencing, police said, Franklin struck up another online conversation with the same detective, who traced the defendant to an unusual address — the D.C. Correctional Treatment Facility.

Franklin had smuggled a phone into his cell and was on his bunk, online, when guards grabbed it, sources said. He was sentenced to 135 months in prison.

"When a sex offender has access to hundreds of tools, how we can possibly keep up with this explosion is beyond me," said Leonard Sipes, spokesman for D.C.'s Court Services and Offender Supervision Agency, which helped capture Shelton and supervises about 650 other sex offenders.

Social networking sites

Sipes said officers are especially worried about social networking sites frequented by children, such as My-Space, which this year said it banned 90,000 registered sex offenders. Facebook has said it is actively trying to prevent sex offenders from joining.

Probation and parole officers use GPS devices, polygraph tests, home visits and treatment to track offenders, but those tools can be used only during periods of supervision, which often end after three to five years. Parole is after prison, while probation is in lieu of prison.

The newest trend in sex-offender management is computer monitoring, which experts said is being done by a majority of state agencies.

A monitoring program installed on an offender's computer is designed to capture every keystroke, Internet site and program, including chat and e-mail.

"Anything they shouldn't be doing is going to leap off the page at you," said Jim Tanner, a former probation officer in Colorado and a leading proponent of monitoring.

Yet even this new tool is flawed. The software won't stop an offender from sneaking a laptop, using a family member's computer or logging on at the library. There is virtually no monitoring equipment for cell phones, BlackBerries or children's gaming devices.

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