Academics and Research / Campus & Community / Magazine Feature

Sex offenders no longer safe to surf

Convicted sex offenders don’t always go to prison.

“Between 60 and 70 percent of all convicted sex offenders are placed on probation,” says Jim Tanner, president of KB Solutions Inc., a Boulder, Colo., consulting firm serving criminal justice and social service agencies.

Since 2003, Tanner has been training parole and probation officers to monitor sex offenders’ computer use through DU’s National Law Enforcement and Corrections Technology Center-Rocky Mountain (NLECTC-Rocky Mountain).

Part of the University of Denver Research Institute, NLECTC-Rocky Mountain conducts applied research and training related to criminal justice. The center funded the development of Field Search, forensic software that allows non-technical officers to quickly scan a sex offender’s computer for inappropriate uses. Because community corrections budgets are tight, the software is provided at no charge to probation and parole agencies nationwide.

The courts have ruled that the Internet, like the telephone, is so ingrained in modern life that it would be unreasonable to deny offenders access to it. However, sentencing conditions routinely require sex offenders to allow inspections of their home or office computers without notice, says Joe Russo, NLECTC corrections program manager.

“Examining a sex offender’s computer is gaining a window into their mind,” Tanner says.

Even seemingly innocuous sites might be off limits for certain offenders, he says.

“We want to identify trends and capture patterns of behavior,” Russo explains. “The key is understanding what to look for and understanding what that means to a sex offender. Even finding pictures of fully clothed children could be problematic.”

That’s why a sex offender may be banned from visiting such sites as Toys “R” Us, he says.

When examining a computer hard drive, probation and parole officers look for TRAPS (Themes, Ratio, Amount, Pace and Session Length) to plumb the sex offender’s mindset.

“The guy who surfs the Internet 10 hours a week and surfs pornography one of those hours is different from the guy who surfs 10 hours and all of those are for pornography,” Tanner says.

Meanwhile, many offenders have learned to hide illicit surfing, says Dan Newby, probation and parole officer with the Fourth Judicial District in Iowa.

“We had an individual who adamantly denied using the Internet to look at pornography,” Newby says. “Before we had Field Search technology, we checked his computer with other software, and it was so clean you could eat dinner on it.

A few weeks later we got Field Search, went back and literally found a thousand or more pornographic sites … The look on his face was priceless.”

This article originally appeared in The Source, May 2006.

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