by Michael McKay
When SORNA (Sex Offender Registration Notification Act, aka Title I of the Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act of 2006) required the states to establish comprehensive minimum standards for their state sex offender registries, it created an unfunded mandate that left many states scrambling to comply or lose Byrne Justice Assistance Grant (JAG) funding from the federal government. Many states did not have sufficient funds earmarked for the creation of a whole new bureaucracy, especially one that depends so heavily on expensive information technology, so they outsourced it.
One of the big beneficiaries of that outsourcing decision was a company called Watch Systems LLC. Watch Systems provides a turn-key solution called the Offender Watch Network to over 3500 government agencies, including sheriffs’ offices, police departments, attorney generals’ offices, US Attorneys, federal and state probation offices, the Department of Corrections, indian tribes, and the US Marshal’s Service. In fact, they claim that 61% of the nation’s sex offenders are in their database, which resides on their privately owned hosted servers. Their “supplemental” products include mobile sex offender mapping applications, a postal sex offender notification mailing service, and a robo-caller to verify sex offender phone numbers. In addition to their sex offender registry products, Watch Systems also maintains and markets other registries for arsonists, deadly weapon offenders, metal thieves, gang members, and animal abusers.
Watch Systems employs about 40 people at their HQ in Louisiana and they generate $7.2 million per year in revenue, almost entirely from government contracts. Their clout in the industry reaches far beyond their Covington LA home base, however. In 2017 alone, Watch Systems spent $120,000 on lobbying efforts in Washington D.C. and is on track to spend even more in 2018.
Other corporate players in this market include TriBridge with $130 million in annual revenues and 650 employees, DeveloApps with their COPS™ (Court Ordered Program Supervisor) platform, idSoftware with their ASOMS (Automated Sex Offender Management System, and GCOM’s SOMS (Sex Offender Management Software).
In addition to high-tech sex offender management software solutions, there are literally hundreds of government contractors peddling sex offender treatment and rehabilitation programs, analytical tools, penile plethysmography testing, and polygraph testing.
The polygraph industry is huge. The U.S. market for polygraph testing is estimated by one “lie-detector” manufacturer to be $3.6 billion per year. 70% of U.S. states use polygraph testing as part of their sex offender management programs. One state, Colorado, has spent $5 million in the past seven years on polygraph testing for sex offenders. In addition to what the state spends, offenders are expected to pay out-of-pocket costs of $250 for each inconclusive or deceptive test, which are more common than one might think. That’s a lot of money for tests that are considered by many states to be so unreliable, they can’t be used as evidence in criminal or civil courts.
In 2003, the National Research Council of the National Academy of Sciences reported to Congress that “practitioners have always claimed extremely high levels of accuracy, and these claims have rarely been reflected in empirical research.” They also noted serious conflicts of interest, systemic bias, and a significantly high rate of false positives in their use.
According to the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry,
“Studies report an average specificity of 52 percent, meaning that out of 100 people who are not lying, only fifty-two will be identified as telling the truth while forty-eight of these honest individuals will be branded as liars. These odds are similar to a coin toss, which would have a specificity of 50 percent.”
These estimates are further corroborated by a “truth verification” company called NITV Federal Services, which markets high-tech voice stress analysis equipment as an alternative to polygraph testing:
“Studies have varied results measuring the accuracy of the polygraph, with estimates ranging from 70 to 90 percent accurate. Furthermore, only 29% of 194 “scientific studies” touted as proof by polygraph advocates met the minimum standards of scientific adequacy… Former polygraph examiner and Oklahoma City Detective Sergeant Doug Williams was sentenced to two years in prison by the federal government in 2015 for activities associated with his teaching people how to beat the polygraph. After years of using the technology, he came to distrust the results and taught thousands of people to use countermeasures. He rates the accuracy of the polygraph at 50 percent at most. In fact, U.S. government agencies have taught individuals involved in undercover operations to beat the polygraph, thus validating Williams claim that techniques can be taught to defeat the polygraph.”
The Global Positioning Satellite (GPS) tracking of sex offenders is, likewise, big business. The devices themselves cost between $100-$150 each, and then there’s the associated equipment, software, and technical assistance required to run a monitoring program. Federal and state courts are spending approximately $36 a day per offender for GPS monitoring, which is more expensive than traditional methods of enforcing parole or probation ($27.45/day), but cheaper than civil commitment, which averages more than $100,000 a year per person. According to Peter Michel, the president and CEO of iSECUREtrac (a maker of electronic monitoring devices), about 40 states currently have legislation on the books or are in the works that require GPS monitoring of certain sex offenders. In 2015, there were more than 125,000 people overall being monitored by the courts using GPS devices, up from 53,000 in 2005. With an estimated 10% rise in that number each year, that’s would equate in 2018 to 166,000 users, or $6 million dollars per day – $2.2 billion per year.
Seven companies have already captured 96% of the offender GPS market. Since GPS device users can’t be upsold or super-sized (limit, one per customer) the only way these companies can increase sales and revenues is to increase the size of their potential market.
The 900,000 people on the sex offender registry represent a huge potential market for more GPS tracking devices and software applications. If even one tenth of those offenders become future candidates for GPS monitoring, that would amount to $3.2 million every day, or an additional $1.2 billion dollars per year.
Let’s also consider the privately owned and managed civil commitment facilities for sex offenders who have completed their criminal sentences, but are deemed too dangerous to be released into communities. The cost of incarcerating one prisoner in a traditional prison is roughly $31,000 per year, but civil commitment facility costs run closer to $100,000 per year by some estimates due to programming and therapy costs. There are over 5,400 sex offenders currently languishing in civil commitment facilities in twenty states. That’s a whopping $540 million per year!
Private prison companies are raking in the cash. And they’re dishing it out, too. They paid 10 lobbyists $480,000 dollars to lobby Texas state lawmakers in 2017. The GEO Group alone spent $320,000 on lobbying there. Private prison lobbyists also gave more than $225,000 to Texas lawmakers via political action committees between 2013 and 2016. And that’s just one state.
Finally, we should make note of the fact that the news media industry absolutely loves sex offenders, but not in a good way. Consider this recent Newsweek story: “Sex Offender with no nose jailed for child pornography,” where the writer goes out of her way to outrageously depict the accused man as a real-life boogeyman. Just when you think the media can’t sink any lower, they prove us wrong, and in a big way.
Network television news revenues have been stagnant for years and newspapers and magazines seem to be leading a charge into bankruptcy. This leaves the media increasingly desperate to generate as much hysteria and fear as possible to increase ad revenues. Sex offenders, like it or not, are their new cash cow.
Is it any wonder that, every year, companies that specialize in “sex offender management” solutions for the courts and law enforcement send their lobbyists to each of the state capitals and to Washington D.C. to influence public policy and legislation with huge wads of cash to spread around? At the same time, many sex offender registrants are deprived of their right to vote, kept off the internet, and saddled with unemployment and homelessness.
There’s a problem-solving principle called “Occam’s Razor” which postulates that a person, when presented with competing hypothetical answers to a problem, should select the answer that makes the fewest assumptions and is inherently the “simplest.”
You want to know why very little ever seems to get accomplished in the sex offender law reform movement? The answer is simple. Money talks.