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Why the U.S. Marshals Spend Millions on Sex-Offense Registrant Sweeps

The real aim of these operations might be to boost support for cops.

US Marshals arrest a man charged with sex crimes in 2011. Two marshals stand on either side of the man, who is wearing a striped polo shirt. The man in the middle is handcuffed.
The U.S. Marshals’ sex-offense registrant sweeps don’t seem to actually prevent sexual violence.U.S. Marshals Office of Public Affairs via Flickr

Gary, a 62-year-old on Texas’s sex-offender registry, dates the problems with his neighbors to a visit by police in 2018. After a successful real estate career he lives in a relatively safe neighborhood outside Dallas, identifies as a conservative, and has friends on the police force. He’s donated to police charities, once giving $10,000 to the family of an officer killed on duty, he tells The Appeal.

He was convicted of child pornography possession in 2007, spent five years in prison and 10 years on probation, and hasn’t reoffended since, state records show. “It’s very serious,” he said of his offense. “It’s wrong. I take responsibility.” (Gary isn’t his real name, which he asked to have withheld to protect his company and family.)

That day four years ago, a team of local officers and U.S. Marshals showed up at his home in full tactical gear and a tactical vehicle with the Marshals’ logo, he says. They were checking the addresses of those on the registry. Gary showed them his license and they left—the whole thing took perhaps five minutes.

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.

In Gary’s case, the raid poisoned his neighbors against him, his wife, and their 2-year-old son—most wouldn’t speak to them for months, and some still don’t. Today his wife is terrified whenever someone they don’t know knocks.

“Law enforcement have an impossible job … and so I have the ultimate respect for them,” Gary said. “But I felt that wearing the tactical vests was clearly an act of intimidation and clearly an act to embarrass the hell out of me with my neighbors.”

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.

In passing the law, Congress assumed that compelling registrants to keep their details up to date prevents sexual violence, an assertion federal agents themselves point to after operations. “The deterrent value of [knocking on doors] is huge,” U.S. Marshal Peter Tobin told the press in 2015 after a raid in Franklin County, Ohio, in which 10 teams of cops spent a week knocking on the doors of more than 1,600 registrants to verify their addresses.

These mobilizations also funnel federal dollars to local police. The Osceola County Sheriff’s Office in Florida noted in a release last November that the Marshals had funded 450 hours of overtime for the department during a five-month door-knocking sweep called Operation Squeaky Wheels. The Marshals’ 2022 budget request for “apprehending fugitives and non-compliant sex offenders” is $610 million, the largest item in the agency’s budget and an increase of 4 percent if enacted.

It’s hard to know how many of these operations—with names like Operation Spring Sweep, Operation Watchful Eye, and Operation Deviant Guard—the agency helps spearhead each year. The agency’s public affairs office didn’t respond to multiple requests for information on how much of that money gets shared with local cops and how many operations took place last year. The agency’s news releases announced six of them since April 2021, but the real number is likely far higher.

The flood of money doesn’t appear to produce much. In a typical sweep last summer in Florida, the St. Lucie County Sheriff’s Office announced that it had teamed with the Marshals to send out a “swarm” of cops to check on 555 people on the state registry over the course of eight days. They made a total of 16 arrests, according to a freedom of information request The Appeal filed with the state attorney’s office to ask about changes in the number of pending cases. Arrest warrants for two more people were pending. Neither the state attorney nor the sheriff’s office answered questions about what the arrests were for or the cost of the operation. But Sheriff’s Chief Deputy Brian Hester said in a press conference that the most common charge was for failure to report a change of address or vehicle.

In a May 2021 operation in Tennessee, Shelby County Sheriff Lloyd Bonner announced an “immensely successful” effort involving his department and the Marshals checking on 146 registrants. They nabbed a total of 10—not for repeat sexual crimes but for technical lapses like failing to update their addresses or driver’s licenses.

For the hundreds of registrants targeted, and sometimes their families, these are frightening intrusions. On November 29, 2021 at about noon, Ernest, a Missouri registrant, was at home on the 500-acre farm he owns. He and his mother, who lives with him, were outside when three SUVs came barreling down his lane and skidded to a stop. A team of six cops—three sheriffs and three Marshals dressed in bullet-proof vests—jumped out. “Me being a military guy—I got 22 years in the Marine Corps—immediately I focused on that rear Marshal who came out with his hand on his weapon,” said Ernest, who didn’t want his real name used in this story. They checked his license and license plates and left.

Ernest says he was in combat once in Somalia and twice in Iraq and played college football. “But them blasting onto my drive, I did not sleep at all that night and barely the next night,” he said. His mother was shaken up and suggested they buy a gun. Of the 105 people convicted of sex crimes targeted in that operation, five were arrested for failure to register, according to the Marshals.

Sweeps also generate a flood of uncritical press. “US Marshals and Scranton police nab 9 sex offenders,” a CNN headline from October declared, after cops went door to door checking home addresses of 219 registrants, arresting nine for being out of compliance and issuing arrest warrants for four others. The Marshals’ press release on which the story was based didn’t cite the technical lapses those arrested were being charged with–but the original offenses that they’d already been punished for. Most of those were committed more than 10 years ago, according to a review of their criminal records by The Appeal.

CNN’s reporter quoted the Scranton Police Department’s take on the effort: “The cooperation between the Scranton Police Department and our law enforcement partners is paramount in making our community safe for all citizens,” said Police Chief Leonard Namiotka.

…we spend much more money on registration, community notification, residency restrictions, and civil commitment than we do on any other forms of prevention.

Michael Miner University of Minnesota Institute for Sexual and Gender Health

Sweep announcements often convey danger and sell why cops are needed. That might explain why so many happen on or around Halloween–at least a dozen in the last 10 years, according to a search of news reports by The Appeal. “Operation Trick-or-Treat is a demonstration of the law enforcement community’s commitment to protecting the children of Nevada,” U.S. Marshal Christopher Hoye said of a Nevada sweep—though researchers showed in 2009 that the risk of sexual violence doesn’t rise on Halloween.

Cops also use the raids to promote the message that police are all that stands between families and mayhem. “We’re here to make sure your children and families are safe,” Florida Sheriff Marcos Lopez said in a Facebook video about last year’s Operation Squeaky Wheels. “Sexual predators and offenders … you better comply with Florida law, ‘cause I’m gonna tell you what, I’m gonna arrest you and book you in the county jail where you belong time and time again,” he added while pointing at the camera.

And federal officials use the operations to denounce criticism of cops. After one sweep in Utah three months after the police murder of George Floyd, then-U.S. Attorney for the District of Utah John Huber lambasted anti-police violence protesters during a joint press conference with the Marshals. “This extensive, expensive operation brings into focus how ludicrous the demands and chants of the activists are,” Huber said. “This type of operation shows how ridiculous the demands are to defund the police, to defund law enforcement. Who will protect our children in such a bizarre counter universe?”

What these efforts don’t appear to do is stop sexual violence. Studies in Minnesota, New Jersey, and South Carolina failed to find any significant differences in recidivism between registration-compliant and noncompliant sex offenders, according to a March 2017 report from the U.S. Department of Justice. Indeed, a meta-analysis of 25 years of findings released last fall by researchers at Florida International University and the University of Central Florida concluded that sex offender registration and notification laws themselves “demonstrate no effect on recidivism.”

A lot is at stake in how money to prevent sexual violence gets used: Every dollar invested in an unproven approach isn’t available to support one backed by evidence. Nicholas Newstrom is a St. Cloud University assistant professor who studies sexual violence and treatment for those who’ve committed sexual crimes. After those convicted served time for their crimes, “how do we support them to move on with their lives?” he asks. “Is there something we can do to help this person get a job, to help them have stable, healthy relationships?”

A wealth of research indicates that ex-offenders are more likely to stay crime-free when they have access to education, housing, transportation, jobs, and social support, according to a 2014 study in the Journal of Qualitative Criminal Justice & Criminology. Circles of Support and Accountability (CoSA), a program funded by Vermont’s Department of Corrections and in a few locations around the country, gives ex-offenders a circle of volunteer supporters to help them navigate reentry barriers. A randomized control trial of CoSA in Minnesota found the program cut sexual offense recidivism by 88 percent and recidivism for other offenses by 49 to 57 percent. CoSA has no dedicated source of federal funding, though Vermont has used some federal reentry money to run its program.

Despite the research, “we spend much more money on registration, community notification, residency restrictions, and civil commitment than we do on any other forms of prevention,” Michael Miner, research director at the University of Minnesota’s Institute for Sexual and Gender Health, said in an email.

These programs scrape by on a fraction of what the Marshals work with. The federal Rape Prevention Education Program is the main source of federal funding for sexual violence prevention programs and administered by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It grants funds to rape crisis centers to run evidence-based programs shown to cut sexual violence: One of those—Green Dot bystander intervention—was found to reduce incidents of sexual violence on high school campuses by at least 12 percent.

In fiscal 2022, RPE got $57 million, up $5 million from the year before and a record for the program—which was appropriate given that demand for its programs skyrocketed after the genesis of the #MeToo movement, according to the National Alliance to End Sexual Violence. It’s a sizable increase in the world of sexual violence prevention and one advocates were grateful for, says Terri Poore, NAESV’s policy director. Still, those programs would need almost triple that amount of money to see widespread change in social norms around sexual violence—around $150 million, she says. In NAESV’s 2021 survey of rape crisis centers, 57 percent reported that they’d actually lost funding in the most recent fiscal year, half said they’d had to lay off staff, and almost two-thirds reported that their staff’s average salary was under $40,000.

Newstrom says the Marshals’ compliance sweeps are an effort to show they’re doing something about sexual violence. “It’s harder to create an intervention where we’re teaching people about affirmative consent,” he said. “It takes more time, it takes more resources versus, ‘I can go out and knock on some doors and see who’s compliant or not.’”

But for now, those exercises continue to have untold consequences. Gary says despite how the police operation four years ago affected his family, he holds no resentment. “I put myself in a position to have to incur whatever response the government had,” he said. “I’m not crying in my beer. I did what I did.” But he worries about the registrants he’s known who hold lower-level jobs, live in apartment complexes, or rent a room from someone. “They could lose their residence and they could lose their job,” he said.

He added later: “And by the way, that’s what got me angry.”