U.S. Marshals spending millions on registrant sweeps

By Steven Yoder

. . . Since 2006, the federal government has funneled millions into sometimes-massive operations to verify the addresses of those on sex-offender registries. It’s hard to tell how often these happen–the Marshals Service didn’t respond to multiple requests from The Appeal about how many operations they ran in the latest fiscal year. But a look at how authorities talk about the operations–and the flattering press coverage they generate–indicates their importance in selling the public on more police. Worse, studies show they likely do nothing to improve public safety or make incidents of sexual violence less likely.

Meanwhile programs with proven track records in preventing sexual violence or successfully reintegrating people previously punished for a sexual crime get little federal help.

These sweeps have their origin in a few terrible but rare crimes. The 1994 kidnap and murder of 7-year-old Megan Kanka by a neighbor led to the federal passage of Megan’s Law in 1996, which required states to create public lists of those with a sexual crime in their past. Ten years later, missing-children advocates convinced Congress to create more uniformity between state registries by passing the 2006 Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act, named for a child abducted from a Florida shopping mall and murdered in 1981 by a stranger.

In the latest estimate, 105 U.S. children were the victims of stereotypical kidnappings by strangers in 2011, down from 115 in 1997. The vast majority of all child abductions annually are committed by family members.

Much of the debate in the run-up to the Adam Walsh Act was grounded in myth. In 2005, Florida Rep. Mark Foley, a Republican, sponsored the bill that would become Title I of the Adam Walsh law. “There is a 90 percent likelihood of recidivism for sexual crimes against children,” he said on the House floor that year. “Ninety percent … that is their record.” (In 2006 he resigned for sending sexually explicit instant messages to underage Congressional pages.) The actual rate is 12 percent over the course of eight years, according to a 2014 synthesis of 21 studies.

But the hyperbole worked, and the law passed. The act ratcheted up penalties for people convicted of sex crimes who don’t keep their details up to date. It requires them to register in person between one and four times a year and no more than three business days after any change of name, residence, employment, or student status. And it makes failure to register a crime punishable with up to 10 years in prison.

The law also designated the U.S. Marshals the lead agency responsible for checking that registrants are compliant, teaming up with state and local cops in “fugitive task forces” that knock on doors to check that they live at the address listed. As the enforcement arm of the federal courts, the Marshals Service is involved in almost every federal law enforcement initiative and conducts related tasks like tracking down those wanted for federal crimes, transporting prisoners, and carrying out other special missions. . . .

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