Sex offenders more difficult to monitor

Increased arrests, lack of manpower, electronics cited

By Jerry Markon
Washington Post / November 29, 2009

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WASHINGTON - The pursuit of Lee Shelton began the moment the convicted sex offender was released from prison.

It ended months later with a US Marshals Service helicopter hovering near a District of Columbia 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 His parole was revoked, and he is back in jail.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 was originally 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 monitoring of sex offenders is required by law when they are on probation or parole.

But the most alarming development is proliferating electronic gadgets and the temptations they pose to offenders.

“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 the Court Services and Offender Supervision Agency here, which helped capture Shelton and supervises about 650 other sex offenders convicted in D.C. Superior Court.

The newest trend in sex-offender management is computer monitoring, which experts said is being done by a majority of state agencies. Most federal districts monitor computers in some form.