There are more than half a million registered sex offenders in the US today - convicted of a crime involving sexual abuse, released from incarceration, and required to report their whereabouts, in some cases for the rest of their lives.
Until they surface in the news - as has happened recently, and tragically, in Idaho and California where two individuals are suspected of further sex crimes involving young victims - they tend to remain in semi-anonymity in communities around the country.
But significant numbers are missing, no longer where they last reported in. Among these: 957 in Arizona (including 126 of those considered most dangerous), 612 in Colorado, 700 in Virginia, and more than 17,800 in California.
Some states and communities are cracking down.
• Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano last week launched "Operation Safe Neighborhoods" to beef up the agency that tracks the state's 14,000 registered offenders while limiting the number of offenders on probation living in the same housing complex.
• Tennessee and Louisiana now require some offenders to wear global positioning system (GPS) tracking devices; New York, Florida, and New Jersey are moving in that direction.
• Twenty-eight states require community notification when a registered offender moves in, and there is a push for such notification elsewhere.
• Twenty-two states have civil commitment laws to keep violent sexual predators confined, typically in mental institutions, after their prison sentence is up.
• Fourteen states have buffer zones prohibiting registered sex offenders from living near where children congregate. In some areas - most notably Florida - such buffers are so large that they make it virtually impossible for an offender to live anywhere in the community.
But the problem of unaccounted-for sex offenders will persist, some experts say, until there is a strictly enforced national registry that makes it harder for offenders simply to move elsewhere and not register there, as recently nabbed serial molester Dean Arthur Schwartzmiller - who'd been arrested or convicted in seven states - apparently did.
All of this comes 10 years after passage of "Megan's Law," federal legislation requiring states to register sex offenders. Such laws now are on the books around the country. But they differ from jurisdiction to jurisdiction, and critics say they fail to provide adequate protection to the public.
"Megan's Law was supposed to guarantee that if a sex offender moved in next door, you would be notified by law enforcement, but that's just not the case," says Laura Ahearn, executive director of Parents for Megan's Law, a national child advocacy group.
Of the 551,987 registered sex offenders around the country, the organization reported recently, 24 percent are failing to comply with registration requirements.
While those convicted of nonsexual crimes who have served time can reintegrate into normal life fairly successfully, sexual offenders face higher public standards. "Just because someone has served their time does not mean that they have been rehabilitated," says Rep. Earl Pomeroy (D) of North Dakota, author of a bill creating a federal online sex offender database for the public. "Recidivism rates are alarmingly high" for sexual offenders.
Mr. Pomeroy points to a Bureau of Justice Statistics study of 9,691 male sex offenders released from 15 states in 1994. Seventy-eight percent of those studied had been arrested at least once prior to their conviction, and 14 percent had a prior conviction for a violent sexual offense. The study further found that by 1997 5.3 percent of those sex offenders were rearrested for a new sex crime. Of those repeat offenders, 40 percent committed the new offense within a year of their discharge from prison.
Five percent may seem like a low number, and some civil liberties advocates have expressed concern about tarring all ex-offenders as potentially dangerous. Those who work to rehabilitate sex offenders also warn that the public stigma of perpetual registration can make it hard for such individuals to reintegrate into work and community, further exacerbating whatever may have led them to commit sexual offenses in the first place.
Still, the Bureau of Justice Statistics found that compared with other offenders released from state prisons, released sex offenders were four times as likely to be rearrested for a sex crime.
Around the country, recent instances of sex crimes involving children have increased public interest in tracking offenders.
"Many people will be surprised by how many registered sex offenders live in close proximity to their homes, schools, and communities," says Scott Adams, director of the National Alert Registry, a Florida company that provides the location and identities of registered sex offenders.
Meanwhile, authorities are looking for other ways to prevent repeat sexual offenses. Scanning the Internet is a start.
In an online journal called "Blogging the Fifth Nail," an allegorical reference to Jesus' crucifixion, Joseph Duncan wrote "I don't know much any more what right and wrong even is." Mr. Duncan, a repeat violent sex offender, is charged with the recent abduction of a young brother and sister in Idaho.
Duncan's blog ramblings, in which he complained about being officially labeled a sex offender, could be used as evidence against him. But whether the public warnings of a convicted and registered sex offender should have been seen as clear intent to act is another question.
The US Justice Department recently announced that state sex-offender registry data will be publicly available on a new federal government website. Bills in the House and Senate would also require that state's attorneys be notified when a high-risk offender is about to be released so that continued confinement can be considered. States also would be required to intensely monitor for at least one year any high-risk sex offender who has not been civilly committed and who has been unconditionally released.
"It is absolutely critical that we do better in tracking convicted sex offenders," says Sen. Byron Dorgan (D) of North Dakota, sponsor of the Senate bill.
Courts have tended to support registries for sex offenders. In 2003, the US Supreme Court ruled that states can post sex offenders' photos and personal data on the Internet. A federal appeals court recently upheld Florida laws requiring sex offenders to register their addresses and submit DNA samples. Last month, another federal appeals court upheld Iowa's buffer zone law, one of the nation's most restrictive.