Nearly one in six convicted sex offenders is using sophisticated techniques invented by identity thieves to avoid their legally mandated registration requirements, a new study has found. These digital absconders might be able to avoid post-incarceration restrictions by living near schools and playgrounds, and could possibly gain employment working with children.
The study, conducted by Utica College and funded by the U.S. Justice Department, estimates that roughly 92,000 of the 570,000 registered sex offenders across the country are systematically manipulating their names, birthdays, Social Security numbers and other personal identifiers so they can live as they want while appearing to satisfy court-imposed or statutory restrictions.
"These are offenders who are flying under the radar and authorities don't know it," said Don Rebovich, the Utica professor who directed the study. "The authorities really don’t have the resources to keep on checking on these people. Offenders find where the vulnerabilities are in the system and exploit them."
These digital absconders create two obvious problems. Communities expend energy and resources dealing with offenders who aren't really there -- local police knock on doors and send notices to warn neighbors; public listings are published on the Internet. And sex offenders live where they please as normal adults, without any protective measures kicking in.
"In the worst-case scenario, by thwarting registration requirements, they could potentially have easier access to children," said Staca Shehan, director of case analysis at the Center for Missing and Exploited Children, who is familiar with the study. "(In) those jurisdictions that have residency restrictions that would not allow (offenders) to live within distance of a school, daycare or park, (they) could avoid that type of requirement."
While the study found that an average of 16.2 percent of sex offenders manipulate their identities nationally, some states fared worse: Louisiana, Washington, D.C., Nevada, Tennessee and Delaware all had digital absconder rates of higher than 25 percent.
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