Registered Sex Offenders:

Sharing More Information Will Enable Federal Agencies to Improve Notifications of Sex Offenders' International Travel

GAO-13-200: Published: Feb 14, 2013. Publicly Released: Feb 14, 2013.

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What GAO Found

Three federal agencies--U.S. Marshals, International Criminal Police Organization (INTERPOL) Washington - U.S. National Central Bureau (USNCB), and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE)--use information from state, local, territorial, and tribal jurisdictions, as well as passenger data from the U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP), to identify registered sex offenders traveling outside of the United States. Similarly, these agencies may be notified of registered sex offenders traveling to the United States through several means, including tips from foreign officials or when CBP queries the registered sex offender's biographic information at a port of entry and finds that the offender has a criminal history. However, none of these sources provides complete or comprehensive information on registered sex offenders leaving or returning to the United States. For example, CBP does not routinely query individuals who leave the United States by commercial bus, private vessel, private vehicle, or by foot, in which case CBP may not be able to determine if any of these individuals are registered sex offenders. In addition, foreign officials do not always monitor when a registered sex offender is returning to the United States. The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), working with other agencies, is developing a process that will address some of these limitations. Specifically, the FBI will send an automated notice to the U.S. Marshals and law enforcement officials in the jurisdictions where the sex offender is registered that the offender is traveling, to the extent that the offender's biographical information is queried at the port of entry. However, because ICE has not requested to receive the automated notifications, ICE will not be notified of registered sex offenders who leave the country via a land port of entry whose biographical information is queried.

USNCB and ICE have notified foreign officials of some registered sex offenders leaving and returning to the country, but could increase the number and content of these notifications. USNCB notifies its foreign INTERPOL counterparts about registered sex offenders traveling internationally, and ICE notifies its foreign law enforcement counterparts about traveling sex offenders who had committed an offense against a child. USNCB provides more detailed information than ICE because USNCB uses offenders' self-reported travel information that some jurisdictions collect, which may include details such as hotel information. Since ICE uses passenger data, it does not have these details. Also, data from August 1 to September 30, 2012, showed that the two agencies had significant differences in the number of offenders they identified in notifications. USNCB sent notifications on 105 traveling sex offenders that ICE did not, and, conversely, ICE sent notifications on 100 traveling sex offenders that USNCB did not. In part this is because the two agencies rely on different information sources and do not share information with one another. Taking steps to ensure that these agencies have all available information on the same registered sex offenders traveling internationally could help ensure that the agencies are providing more comprehensive information to their foreign counterparts to help inform public safety decisions.

Why GAO Did This Study

In recent years, certain individuals who had been convicted of a sex offense in the United States have traveled overseas and committed offenses against children. GAO was asked to review what relevant federal agencies—including DOJ, DHS, and the Department of State—are doing with regard to registered sex offenders traveling or living abroad. This report addresses the following questions: (1) How and to what extent does the federal government determine whether registered sex offenders are leaving or returning to the United States? (2) How and to what extent have federal agencies notified foreign officials about registered sex offenders traveling internationally? GAO analyzed August and September 2012 data from the U.S. Marshals, USNCB, and ICE on registered sex offenders who traveled internationally. GAO also interviewed relevant agency officials and surveyed officials from all 50 states, 5 territories, and the District of Columbia to determine the extent to which they identify and use information on traveling sex offenders.

What GAO Recommends

GAO recommends that ICE consider receiving the automated notifications and DOJ and DHS take steps to ensure that USNCB and ICE (1) have information on the same number of traveling registered sex offenders and (2) have access to the same level of detail about each traveling registered sex offender. USNCB within DOJ and DHS concurred with our recommendations.

For more information, contact Eileen R. Larence at (202) 512-6510 or larencee@gao.gov.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Open

    Comments: The Sex Offender Registration and Notification Act (SORNA) requires all sex offenders registered in the United States to notify their state registries prior to traveling abroad. At the time of our review, the FBI was in the process of developing an automated notification system to help ensure that relevant federal law enforcement agencies were also notified when sex offenders traveled internationally. However, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officials told us that they had not intended to sign up to receive the notifications, in part because they believe the number of notifications would be overwhelming. We recommended that once FBI finalized the automated notifications, that ICE weigh the cost and benefits of receiving notifications. According to the FBI's Criminal Justice Information Services (CJIS) division, as of May 2015, CJIS, in consultation with U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP), made significant progress in addressing the technical challenge of the automated notifications. Specifically, instead of sending notifications for multiple hits on the same individual in the National Sex Offender Registry (NSOR) in a given day, which would be too burdensome on the agencies receiving the notices, CJIS was able to create an NCIC re-vetting tool such that notifications would only be sent for the initial hit of a particular person in NSOR. As of May 2015, CJIS completed programming of the re-vetting tool, and now CBP is responsible for implementing the tool. In June 2015, we asked CBP to provide a status update on implementation of the tool, but as of July 2015, they had not provided this information. Until the re-vetting tool is implemented, ICE cannot yet weigh the costs and benefits of receiving the automated notifications.

    Recommendation: Given ICE's objective to target the transnational sexual exploitation of children, after the automated notification becomes operational, the Director of ICE should direct ICE Homeland Security Investigations officials to coordinate with FBI Criminal Justice Information Services officials to collect and analyze information that will enable ICE to determine if the benefits of receiving the automated notifications outweigh the costs. The type of information ICE may consider collecting as part of this analysis could include the number of notifications generated for sex offenders leaving the country via a land port of entry.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security: Directorate of Border and Transportation Security: Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement

  2. Status: Open

    Comments: We reported that U.S. National Central Bureau (USNCB) and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) did not have information on the same registered sex offenders or the same level of detail on registered sex offenders traveling internationally, which affected their ability to notify their respective foreign counterparts. In part, this is because the two agencies rely on different information sources and do not share information with one another. We recommended that DOJ and DHS develop mechanisms that would enable these two agencies to have access to the same information on traveling sex offenders. In August 2013, ICE provided documentation showing that it copied several U.S. Marshals Service (USMS) officials on notifications that ICE sent to other countries regarding registered sex offenders traveling internationally. However, ICE did not copy USNCB on these notifications. ICE explained that it thought sharing information on traveling sex offenders with USMS and relying on USMS to pass that information along to USNCB was the most efficient way to share information with USNCB. However, we analyzed notifications from ICE, USNCB, and USMS regarding sex offenders who initiated international travel in February 2014 and found that USMS only passed along about 30% of the notifications it received from ICE to USNCB. We provided the results of this analysis to all three agencies in July 2014. We met with relevant U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP), ICE, USMS, and USNCB officials in September 2014 to discuss options for ensuring that USNCB receives more comprehensive information regarding traveling sex offenders. ICE officials stated that since CBP is the source of the information ICE receives on traveling sex offenders, as well as one of the information sources for USMS, that it may be best for CBP to provide information directly to USNCB. USNCB officials also stated that their preference was to receive information directly from CBP, and it was their understanding that CBP and USNCB were in the process of developing an MOU that would allow for this. In February 2015, CBP informed GAO that the MOU between CBP and USNCB and USMS had been drafted and was being reviewed by CBP's Office of Chief Counsel and Privacy. In May 2015, CBP informed us that the MOU was still being reviewed and they would inform us and provide a copy once it was finalized and signed. As of July 2015, we have not received the signed MOU.

    Recommendation: To ensure that USNCB and ICE are providing more comprehensive information to their respective foreign counterparts regarding registered sex offenders traveling internationally, the Attorney General and the Secretary of Homeland Security should take steps to help ensure that USNCB and ICE have information on the same number of registered sex offenders as well as the same level of detail on registered sex offenders traveling internationally. Such steps could include USNCB and ICE copying each other on their notifications to their foreign counterparts or USNCB receiving information directly from the CBP National Targeting Center (NTC).

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security

  3. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: We reported that USNCB and ICE did not have information on the same number of registered sex offenders or the same level of detail on registered sex offenders traveling internationally, which affected their ability to notify their respective foreign counterparts. In part, this is because the two agencies rely on different information sources and do not share information with one another. We recommended that DOJ and DHS develop mechanisms that would enable these two agencies to have access to the same information on traveling sex offenders. In April 2013, USNCB informed us that, starting in March 2013, USNCB began copying ICE on notifications that it disseminated regarding traveling sex offenders. On March 6, 2014, USNCB gave us copies of all of the notifications that it provided to its INTERPOL counterparts regarding sex offenders initiating international travel in February 2014. We found that USNCB had copied an ICE Angel Watch official on almost all of these notifications. Therefore, we believe that USNCB has implemented our recommendation.

    Recommendation: To ensure that USNCB and ICE are providing more comprehensive information to their respective foreign counterparts regarding registered sex offenders traveling internationally, the Attorney General and the Secretary of Homeland Security should take steps to help ensure that USNCB and ICE have information on the same number of registered sex offenders as well as the same level of detail on registered sex offenders traveling internationally. Such steps could include USNCB and ICE copying each other on their notifications to their foreign counterparts or USNCB receiving information directly from the CBP National Targeting Center (NTC).

    Agency Affected: Department of Justice

 

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