There are 549,038 registered sex offenders in the United States, according to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, and at least 100,000 are "lost" registered sex offenders -- offenders who have disappeared into society without properly notifying authorities.
Sex offenders are required to register in all states, which are mandated by the federal government to notify the public of these individuals' whereabouts.
Keeping track of them in our mobile society, however, has proven difficult for law enforcement. So to help officials keep tabs, Massachusetts contracted with LocatePLUS, a Massachusetts-based provider of investigative solutions, to develop a Web-based application that includes a database of registered sex offenders accessible to local law enforcement.
Curt Wood, deputy director at the Massachusetts Criminal History Systems Board, said the sex offender database is a state effort to develop new data sharing initiatives and work toward a Web-services environment to make data sharing simpler.
The Pilot Begins
The Criminal History Systems Board oversees the state's Criminal Justice Information System (CJIS), and the pilot is a result of a partnership between the state's Criminal History Systems Board, Executive Office of Public Safety and Sex Offender Registry Board.
"We're really trying to modernize our delivery of information to law enforcement here," Wood said. "We're trying to build a system where, if you plug in a name with a single query, it's going to come back with a real suite of information. That's where Web services comes in."
Such a query could include a name, address, a known associate or any other information tied to a subject.
Forty-seven police departments in areas of Massachusetts with the highest number of sex offenders were chosen to participate in the pilot, which began in May. Each department contributed names and any other information on sex offenders in their areas.
"They signed memorandums of understanding that they would use this to make sure we have updated addresses, things of this nature, on this offender," Wood said.
The sex offender data is just one area the database and application can help law enforcement, Wood said. "We've rolled this out as part of a pilot with these 47 departments for sex offenders, but we also encourage them to use the tool in other areas, like warrant investigation, location and apprehension of wanted individuals," Wood said.
The pilot will be reviewed after three months, and CJIS officials hope it becomes an enterprise-wide solution.
Well Rounded Information
Accessing the LocatePLUS database will give law enforcement officials information on scores of fugitives and sex offenders not only from Massachusetts, but also from around the country, and officers are encouraged to use it to track other fugitives as well.
LocatePLUS purchases data from a multitude of sources throughout the country and strings the information together in a database, so law enforcement can take the name of a subject and drill into his or her history, locating friends and family along the way.
A previous address of a wanted felon, for example, can yield many clues to his activities. Entering the address into the database may produce the names of others who have lived at that address, giving law enforcement new leads.
"It might give you one more person to talk to," Wood said. "Say you're on the lam, you're hiding out, but I know everybody that's been in contact with you, and I can go talk to those people."
The database was immediately used to locate associates of a suspect in an ongoing local online child porn investigation, making it much easier and quicker to gather information, Wood said.
It takes just minutes to locate associates in the database, whereas it might have taken weeks to make dozens of calls necessary to find those people.
LocatePLUS is also creating a "flagging" mechanism that runs activity reports weekly or monthly, recording each time a subject's name, phone number or Social Security number is used in a transaction, such as opening a new account or purchasing department store items. Officials will note from the purchase if perhaps the subject has given a different address or phone number. That feature is expected to be up and running this summer.
Not a Panacea
In Florida, 9-year-old Jessica Lunsford was kidnapped and killed, which registered sex offender John Evander Couey confessed to after taking a lie-detector test. He was living within 150 yards of Lunsford's home and hadn't notified local authorities of his move.
That type of incident has happened in Massachusetts as well, Wood said.
"In this state, sex offenders are required by law to register. If they fail to register, an investigation occurs and people go out and look for them ... hopefully. They're also required to register when they move," he said. "The problem is it's very difficult to know that somebody's actually moved."
Massachusetts' officials don't see the new database as a cure-all for the sex offender problem, but rather as another tool to help in the process of locating people and keeping better tabs on dangerous individuals.
Good Feedback So Far
Wood said the system, which runs on the state's CJIS network, has elicited excellent feedback, but the proof won't come until three months of data is collected and reviewed. Every officer is required to note any successful transaction with the database.
"We're just starting to run the stats," he said. "We plan to review it after three months and make a determination if we're going to integrate this as an enterprise wide solution."
Although the application is password protected and within the secure CJIS intranet system, there are still privacy concerns.
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has expressed apprehension, saying the information could be incorrect or misused by the state. The organization also mentioned that the database will be used to track other fugitives as well, and that LocatePLUS keeps billions of records and data on 98 percent of the U.S. population.
"The difference between having the state collect information on you and a private company collecting information on you has a lot to do with use and abuse," said Carol Rose, executive director of the ACLU of Massachusetts. "A private company, if they misuse your data or make a mistake, you can go after them for damages. If the police decide they want to abuse the information, chances are it's not going to be monetary damage.
"It may be that you're arrested because of the wrong information, so your actual physical liberty is at risk, not just your financial well being," Rose continued. "It's hard to compensate people if their liberty is taken away."
Wood said officers must sign a document that says the database will be used for official purposes only, and will not be misused. He acknowledged there's no guarantee law enforcement personnel wouldn't use it for the wrong reasons, but added that law enforcement and public safety officials are held to a higher standard for following the letter of the law.
"We have very strong [data] dissemination laws in the state," Wood said. "If an officer runs a criminal background check on Joe Jones and he or she decides to sell that information or give it to somebody, the officer faces criminal penalty."
Wood said all data must be verified, and to understand that some of the data may be incorrect.
"You have to be careful, it may not be accurate," he cautioned. "Before you take action, the information is checked, validated and confirmed legitimate."