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Originally published on 6/13/2005 by the Corrections Connection, reprinted by permission.

 

Sex Offender Supervision and Technology
By Michelle Gaseau, Managing Editor, Corrections Connection

The sexually deviant are masters at cover-up and deception. With networks of like-minded contacts to share sexually explicit or illegal images with and an understanding of how to hide information on their computers, they can continue their behavior surreptitiously after release.

Until recently, probation and parole officers relied only on the polygraph and their own observation to help them find the truth when supervising sex offenders in the community. But today, technology has evolved and these officers have become computer forensic investigators.

"The ability to hide electronic information and pass it to other users in relative secrecy and store large volumes of pornographic material on CD-ROMs or drives, then mail, trade them and exchange via the Internet, it's almost a clandestine operation and can't be detected by going into the operating system if there has been any effort to hide it," said Jeff Snyder, Criminal Justice Manager for the Multnomah County, Ore., Department of Community Justice.

Snyder said the only way to retrieve this kind of material is to use forensic tools and that is exactly what his agency has started doing.

"Pornography is like a narcotic for these folks and triggers deviant behavior. Possession of any of these materials [by sex offenders] is prohibited. If you walk into a room with a computer, it's like walking into a library [with this material]," he said.

Understanding this, the Multnomah County began looking into ways to investigate the contents of a sex offender's computer. The county started using a program that searched and scanned a computer for images and allowed officers to view them as they flashed across the screen. But the downside to that product was that it changed the original file configurations of the computer, which might make the evidence inadmissible in court.

Snyder said the department then opted to use that tool at a later stage in an investigation -- after a computer hard drive had been copied. Now, in the field, officers use a tool that completes a quick search of an offender's computer files looking for any pornographic images. If the forensics tool determines that there are remnants of these types of files, the officer can seize the computer for a more complete examination of its contents.

"When they are in the field they can do a quick evaluation using this tool to determine if there are remnants of pornography. It's like a litmus test - a yes or no," Snyder said.

The forensics tool, called NTA Stealth and developed by New Technologies Inc., has enabled officers to uncover activities that might otherwise have been overlooked.

According to Snyder, officers were able to identify a perpetrator in two unsolved child molestation cases based on a search of the offender's computer using the forensics tool. Another individual, who had heard about the forensics capability of the officers supervising him, also tried beating detection by reformatting his hard drive twice. Snyder said the program still uncovered more than 800 images from his computer.

"It's a cat and mouse game. They are looking for a way around us," he added. "Frequently they exchange ideas between each other and they study this stuff in prison. We find some interesting new techniques [about how to hide information] because they'll get together and will want to know how to hide information from us."

The tool also allowed the county to avoid the high cost of building and staffing a forensics laboratory. Snyder said the software costs around $1,000 and can be used to uncover other types of secretive activities by offenders on community supervision.

Multnomah County also uses the program to identify gang activities and other illegal acts prohibited by an offenders terms of probation or parole.

To prepare officers to supervise sex offenders and use the tool in the field they must participate in a special training.

"The more people in our profession are learning about this capability [the better]. Out hands have really been tied for many years. We're [only] just a couple of years into our ability to use forensics," said Snyder.

Other agencies have also found success by training their officers in simple computer forensics and how to improve the risk assessments that go along with them.

State Supports Intensive Supervision Techniques

In Colorado, public safety, corrections officials and the legislature are like-minded when it comes to monitoring and supervising sex offenders.

In the late 1990's the state convened a board to review how sex offenders were being monitored that involved various state agencies and victim services representatives.

"We really looked at what we were doing. We spent a few years looking at state of the art [approaches] and what standards are there. We came up with probably some of the best standards in the country and suggested legislation," said Greg Brown, Supervisor of the Special Teams Unit, 20th Judicial District, Colorado.

The changes implemented by the state include mandated psycho-sexual evaluations, which look at amenability to treatment, level of denial and offers recommendations for supervision, indeterminate sentencing for sex offenders and the creation of a special sex offender probation case load that does not exceed 18 individuals.

According to Brown, the state adopted a "no cure" philosophy for these offenders, which serves as a guide for the intensive supervision they would be under.

As part of that supervision, officers are in face-to-face contact with these sex offenders, check up with family members and treatment providers and interface with the courts and the parole board to report violations.

Another part of that intensive supervision is the use of technologies, including the polygraph and computer forensics.

According to Brown, these technologies are indispensable now.

"The old school thinking about exposers was that they were not much of a risk, but they may have lots of paraphilias, [and] they may be interchanging their behaviors. We want to be able to regulate their contact with children [especially]," he said. "That's a significant part of risk assessment."

Brown said as more and more sex offenders have access to the Internet, they can interact with others with similar backgrounds and thinking. They can feed off each other and revert back to old behaviors. Probation and parole officers need to be on top of this.

Colorado probation officers have recently begun using computer forensics to look at what sex offenders are viewing on their computers and assess whether they are engaging in prohibited behavior.

"You go to areas you are interested in. We want to know what kind of pornography they are interested in. Is it submission or coercion? It can also show ages and types they are interested in," he said. "This is all about secrecy. The Internet provides anonymity or collusion with others."

Brown said that agencies can build computer forensics into risk assessment by using free software or paid software.

For officers in the 20th Judicial District, training through the National Law Enforcement and Corrections Technology Center has helped familiarize officers with the capabilities of the software options and how to investigate the contents of an actual computer drive. 

"We go through three actual sex offender computer drives and go through the typologies [that can be seen on them] as well as what should you look for and what would you change in their conditions of confinement," said Brown.

Brown said that understanding the investigative part of computer forensics has a lot to do with understanding sex offender management in general.

"If you understand sex offender management, you look for lapses. A lot of them will say it is a slippery slope. They start buying into the distortions of other people," he said.

Brown explained that one offender he supervises said he began acting on his deviant thoughts after viewing a news program about sex offenders and then came into contact with others online who professed that sexual deviants would some day be accepted in our society.

Computer monitoring and forensics can help catch those types of interactions between sex offenders and illicit actions they are trying to hide, Brown said.

Another offender he monitors was caught recently going to Internet dating sites after he was forbidden to use these services by his conditions of probation.
 
"He had met two 14 year-olds on the Internet and guess where he was going again? [After uncovering that] he went back to jail," he said. "Your computer, even if you delete things, it can store it up to nine months or up to a few years," Brown said.

Sharing this information is important to community corrections supervision and many believe that even the most simple computer searches will help uncover sex offenders who are re-offending.

This is the goal of the National Law Enforcement and Corrections Technology Center's training, which is being held in 10 different locations for community corrections providers this year.

NLECTC Training Educates Officers

According to Joe Russo, Program Manager/Corrections for the National Law Enforcement Corrections Technology Center in Colorado, community corrections agencies need to begin paying more attention to the Internet when supervising offenders.
 
"With the rise of the Internet came many forms of new crimes and greater potential for crime in general.  The Internet represents a new dimension that officers need to be aware of and monitor.  In the case of an offender who is under supervision for an Internet-related crime, the need for ongoing monitoring is obvious but for sex offenders in the community it is particularly important to monitor their Internet use," he said.

One complication to outright prohibiting offenders' use of the Internet is the rise in the number of court rulings that state the Internet has become so integral to life that it use cannot be completely banned.

"The only alternative is management [and] teaching officers how to manage a sex offender's Internet use," he said.

The training at NLECTC, which Russo has been involved in, helps educate officers about management of Internet use.

The training at NLECTC provides officers with some important background information about sex offenders and how they operate.  When they have that basic understanding they can begin to realize how dangerous unsupervised Internet use can be with regard to this particular type of offender. 

The key concerns, according to Russo, are anonymity and secrecy; the ability to access material that depicts any area of deviant sexual interest; access to other people around the world with similar interests, which can serve to help the offender normalize his behavior; and access to chat rooms and dating services where offenders can begin to identify and groom potential new victims. 

"I think there are many officers who don't have any idea of the breadth and depth of sexual material on the Internet or how easy is it for an offender to anonymously groom potential victims," Russo said.

As part of the training, officers learn how to frame conditions of probation so that the agency has the specific right to search the computer at any time; that the offender is not to view pornographic materials and that he/she is responsible for anything that is found on the computer.

Then officers learn how to conduct an initial intake of the computer. 

There is an assumption that the first time an officer views an offender's computer there is likely to be materials on it of concern, so the officer is taught to a variety of use forensic software to scan the computer and capture any pornographic images or text, or other images that represent a pattern that may be of interest in the supervision of the case. 

Software used by the officers then generates a report based on what was found.  The report is important to the treatment of the offender as it is very likely that what he is viewing online is interesting to him and may contradict what he has told the treatment team about his sexual interests, Russo added.

Officers participating in the training also learn how to install monitoring software on an offender's computer. The software resides in the background, continuously recording individual keystrokes, web sites visited, images downloaded, and images in cache files. Officers are then taught to wipe the computer clean so that any questionable material is deleted and the offender starts with a blank slate.

Russo said some agencies have taken Internet crime so seriously that hey have hired "cyber-crime" experts to provide services across different offender caseloads. But even if an agency can't afford that, the officers supervising offenders should understand what their offenders could do on the Internet.

"At a minimum, all officers should have a basic knowledge and awareness of the Internet, especially the darker side so that they can have a better idea of the ways in which their offenders may be using it," Russo said.

Russo said agencies have a chance to take advantage of this training in the next year free of charge as the NLECTC plans to offer it to a limited number of agencies that meet certain criteria. Russo said agencies that receive the training should demonstrate a desire and commitment to establishing a computer management program.

This won't cost department a lot of money, though. The basic costs involved in this are the resources to develop and implement policies and procedures on how to monitor sex offenders' computers. Russo added that the only other requirements are for hardware and software and to train staff as there is turnover.

Those who have taken the training believe it is well worth the minor expense.

"It's a new world and, for once in our lives, we are ahead of the curve. We're able to catch our guys doing stuff and report to the court," said Brown.

Others, like Snyder, also agree that becoming educated in cyber crimes and Internet monitoring is crucial to monitoring sex offenders in a computer age.

"The most significant part of this is the ability to stop the cycle of offending. If you catch someone early enough you can use electronic monitoring and incarceration or treatment. If we can see they are starting to get back into this stuff, it serves everyone well," said Snyder.

Resources:

For information about software used by Multnomah County, visit
www.forensics-intl.com

To reach Jeff Snyder, email

To reach Greg Brown - 20th Judicial District Colorado, 303-441-3703

SCAN USA National Sex Offender Alerts - for information go to
http://www.scanusa.com/

Copyright 2005, The Corrections Connection. All rights reserved. Please do not copy or distribute without express permission of The Corrections Connection. For more information, contact The Corrections Connection at news@corrections.com.