WASHINGTON — Sex offender registries are often inaccurate and incomplete, undermining public knowledge about some of the nation's most reviled criminals, Justice Department investigators warn.
The national sex registry is missing information on 22 percent of state-level sex offenders, the federal investigators found. Driver's license information, Social Security numbers and basic addresses are regularly absent, potentially leaving neighbors and police alike in the dark.
"As a result, members of the public will not have the information they need to assess the threat posed by sex offenders in their communities," the Justice Department's Office of Inspector General cautioned.
The investigators aren't completely critical in their new 110-page report assessing progress in tracking sex offenders. They praise, for instance, the U.S. Marshals Service for increasing investigations and arrests of fugitives. The Marshals Service conducted 2,621 fugitive sex-offender investigations last year, up from 390 in 2004.
However, even as sex registry information becomes more widely accessible via the Internet, investigators sound alarms about the databases used to monitor the nation's 644,000 registered sex offenders. The concerns coincide with more fundamental questions about whether the stigmatizing registries go too far.
An advocacy group called Texas Voices is trying to change that state's sex-offender registration requirements so that they don't cover so many crimes. Other critics contend that Congress lacks the constitutional authority to require sex offenders to register anew when they move into new states.
"Tracking sex offenders may enhance public safety," Montana-based U.S. District Judge Donald Molloy ruled in June, when he struck down the requirement, "but any effect on interstate commerce from requiring sex offenders to register is too attenuated to survive (constitutional) scrutiny."
Multiple registries have sprung up since the mid-1990s. The FBI maintains the National Sex Offenders Registry, and all 50 states maintain their own registries, though they differ.
Florida, for instance, allows the public to search for e-mail addresses used by registered sex offenders. North Carolina locates sex offenders by longitude and latitude. California allows searches by proximity to parks or schools.
California leads the nation in registered sex offenders, with about 114,000. This is more than twice the number of sex offenders registered in Texas or Florida, and 10 times the number registered in North Carolina.
Investigators found that some state registries aren't yet compatible with the national FBI registry. Some state files were rejected because they lacked information that the national database requires. Sex offender records are "inconsistent and complete," investigators concluded
"Neither law enforcement officials nor the public can rely on the registries for identifying registered sex offenders, particularly those who are fugitives," investigators noted.
Occasionally, officials kept warrant information out of the national crime database to avoid the expense of extraditing undesirable fugitives.
"Some communities do not want fugitive sex offenders returned to them, even for prosecution," the investigators explained, adding that "we also were told states may not want to reveal that there are a large number of fugitive sex offenders in their jurisdictions."
Under a 2006 law, states have until next year to meet new sex-offender registration standards.
FBI officials said they largely accepted the observations raised in the new audit.
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