Twenty registered sex offenders list their addresses as a men’s homeless shelter in Washington, D.C., but at least one-third of them don’t live there, and authorities have no idea where they are. The men are among more than 25,000 convicted sex offenders and predators across the U.S. who have absconded, their whereabouts unknown to law enforcement or the victims — often children — whom they sexually assaulted or abused, NPR reports. Tens of thousands of others are out of compliance with sex offender registry laws. “Law enforcement are losing people,” says criminologist Kelly Socia of the University of Massachusetts, Lowell. Enforcement of sex offender registries has been upended by the effects of the coronavirus pandemic. Some states have seemingly stopped enforcement.
Most shortcomings predate the pandemic. A system intended to keep track of sex offenders often fails the people it was designed to protect. State registries are rife with errors, such as wrong addresses or names of offenders who died as long as 20 years ago. Others include offenders who have failed to verify their whereabouts in more than a decade. The registries list absconders whom law enforcement say they can’t find but often are hiding in plain sight. NPR found one of Colorado’s 100 most wanted sex offender fugitives unregistered in Washington state. Some sex offenders commit new sex crimes after failing to tell police their whereabouts. “The registry really doesn’t work,” Socia says. “It’s a bloated, inefficient system that is incredibly expensive to maintain. I don’t think it really protects anybody.” The 1994 federal Jacob Wetterling Act requires states to register people convicted of sex crimes or crimes against children and to verify addresses of convicted sex offenders every year for 10 years. NPR counted tens of thousands of offenders whose locations are unknown. Among them were men NPR found easily using public records.