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July 14, 2010

Should we be troubled that some registered sex offenders can get a US passport?

This new piece at CNN, which is headlined "Thousands of sex offenders receive U.S. passports," seem to be trying to get folks alarmed about something that does not seem to me to be too alarming.  Here are the basics:

Thousands of registered sex offenders have received U.S. passports, including at least 30 federal employees, according to a Government Accountability Office report obtained by CNN. The GAO report said the Department of State cannot legally deny passports to registered sex offenders, except those specifically convicted of sex tourism.

The report concluded that about 4,500 U.S. passports of the more than 16 million issued in fiscal year 2008 were issued to registered sex offenders. "Federal statutes authorize the Secretary of State to deny issuance of a passport in certain circumstances, such as while an individual is imprisoned or on parole or supervised release for a conviction for international drug trafficking or sex tourism or is in arrearages for child support," the report states. "However, there is currently no comprehensive program to deny passports to applicants who are registered sex offenders."

The State Department called the report "very misleading" and adding it "conveys more 'shock value' than factual accuracy." In a written response, the department pointed out that only a fraction of 1 percent of the 16 million passports issued in fiscal year 2008 went to registered sex offenders. In addition, the title of the report "fails to convey that GAO found no lawful reasons for the department to deny or revoke the passports of the case study sex offenders based on their status as sex offenders."

"The report appears to suggest, without any foundation, that the Department's issuance of passports to certain Americans facilitated their commission of sex crimes abroad," the department's response said. "There are no facts in the report which show that any of the thirty individuals included in the case studies used his passport to travel to a foreign country to commit a sex crime."...

The GAO report was requested by Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, and Sen. Max Baucus, D-Montana. The GAO studied data from the National Sex Offender Registry (NSOR). However, the approximately 4,500 sex offenders who received passports in fiscal year 2008 "is likely understated because many of the records in the passport database and the NSOR lacked valid Social Security numbers ... In addition, the NSOR does not currently contain a comprehensive listing of all sex offenders from the states."

The GAO found cases that include a sex offender from Texas who received a passport while in prison, a Delaware man with multiple sex convictions who traveled to the Philippines, Germany and France since receiving his passport, and a Georgia man who has traveled to the Philippines, Ireland and Panama.

Among the federal employees who received passports was an aerospace engineer with NASA, an employee of the Bureau of Engraving and Printing, and a Postal Service carrier who traveled to Taiwan and Japan after receiving his passport.  About 50 of those who received passports either lived outside the United States or "their whereabouts were unknown," the report said.

There are both constitutional and policy reasons why I am inclined to shrug in response to this story.  First, unless a sex offender's sentence or some federal law categorically prohibits leaving the United States, it would be potentially unconstitutional for the State Department to deny all passport application for all persons with a prior sex offense.  Second, any American concerned about sex offenders around their children should probably be pleased to learn that some of them are eager and able to leave the US.  And I certainly do not think it a wise or effective use of US tax dollars for the our government to be trying to track and monitor all sex offenders around the globe.

Of course, no criminals — whether guilty of sex or drug or white-collar offenses — should find it easy to flee the country while still being prosecuted for an offense or otherwise subject to lawful restrictions on their movements.  But once an offender has served his full sentence — whether guilty of sex or drug or white-collar offenses — I do see a strong reason why the US State Department should be chiefly concerned with making certain prior offenders cannot ever leave the country.

July 14, 2010 at 08:34 AM | Permalink


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I assumed that registration proponents would be thrilled that sex offenders are leaving the country...

Posted by: Res ipsa | Jul 14, 2010 9:08:08 AM

LOL Grassley and Baucus should be more worried about persons on terrorist watch lists buying guns.

Posted by: . | Jul 14, 2010 9:27:38 AM

I saw the story on cnn and thought it was ridiculous. Where will we be going with this?

Posted by: beth | Jul 14, 2010 9:55:07 AM

When I first saw this story, my reaction was "What's the problem here?" and "Why was this report even requested?" This is the classic "Dog bites man" story.

On a related story, the sun rose this morning (even over registered sex offenders' houses...gasp)!

In short, the answer to the post's title is NO.

Posted by: DEJ | Jul 14, 2010 11:51:23 AM

Grassley is up for reelection this year and Baucus has already mounted his campaign for reelection in 2012. Predictably, they're mining the rich lode of public hysteria. Is this the sort of thing that the GAO does - a hit job for senators seeking reelection? The CNN report was so biased and eager to raise scandal that you'd have thought it was from Fox News.

Posted by: brunello | Jul 14, 2010 12:20:50 PM

While the U.S. Constitution grants the federal government the power to limit immigration, it does not have a parallel power to prevent emigration. Preventing harm to the rest of the world probably does not trump this lack of power.

There are certainly cases where there is a valid interest in preventing someone from leaving the jurisdiction of a court that they are subject to for a limited period of time (e.g. pending trial, while on probation or parole, to prevent a bona fide risk of defying a custody order), but I don't see a generalized federal interest that is constitutional to prevent a sex offender from leaving the country.

Moreover, a passport is basically nothing more than an identity card that establishes a person's U.S. citizenship. The fact that it is used in travel is really secondary. A U.S. embassy, for example, does not have the right to deny its protections to a U.S. citizen simply because they lost their passport, for example. Surely, anyone who is a U.S. citizen is reasonable in having a right to obtain proof of that fact (e.g. in Arizona where one might be deported if one is wrongfully suspected of being an illegal immigrant), and anyone is reasonable in having the government confirm their identity (just as a state ID or driver's license would).

Posted by: ohwilleke | Jul 14, 2010 5:30:35 PM

Doug, did you leave out a "not" in the last sentence? Otherwise, if you do see "a strong reason why the US State Department should be chiefly concerned with making certain prior offenders cannot ever leave the country," what is it?

Posted by: Gritsforbreakfast | Jul 15, 2010 10:27:49 AM

Did you know that treatment for former offenders has been proven effective and that most sex offenders never commit another crime? Did you also know that making it more difficult for former offender to reintegrate into society increases recidivism?

Would you like more *FACTS* ? If so, look at this website and please sign our petition:

CanadiansForAJustSociety [dot] webs [dot] com

Posted by: Steven Yoon | Aug 17, 2010 12:34:57 PM

Wow,so treatment helps or cures? unbelievable, totaly irrelivant how about some justice for the victim, the children that have to live with what the sex offender has done to them especaly if the offender happens to be the father, thats right it is called incest then so long as they grow there own victim the law does not class them as a predator,simply gives them a slap on the wrist and sends them to therapy, if I had my way we would bring back stoning for these suppossed adults who use children for their own sexual gratifacation then face minimal consequences.

Posted by: onyourbike | Sep 1, 2010 9:25:43 AM

I as a registered EX-sex offender (misdemeanor not involving a child) have to register for life in California. It's a shameful thing considering I help cancer patients and recently received a US Congressional award for community service. The registration thing is an ever tightening noose around the neck of those that have done their time and paid their debt to society. We now in many communities can't legally even walk in a public park. It's a horrible thing. Strange that it's fine for me to be alone with women in a salon environment but I can't go to the park!

Posted by: Robert C. | Dec 27, 2011 9:18:00 PM

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