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How a probation and parole officer should supervise sex offenders

Probation and parole officers must balance the needs of sex offenders with community safety


In this photo taken Friday, March 6, 2013, San Bernardino County Probation officers search a parolee room for drugs and arms during a night probation compliance sweep in Apple Valley, Calif.

AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes

Most probation and parole officers do not enter the profession thinking they are going to supervise sex offenders. However, at some point in their career, their caseload will probably include a sex offender.

Supervising sex offenders can be more challenging and difficult than other cases due to additional rules, restrictions and laws sex offenders have to abide by, along with the treatment programs they have to participate in to be successful during their time on supervision.

Sex offenders may be cooperative and easy to work with, but take more monitoring and constant follow-up to ensure the sex offender complies with the law.

Some people believe all sex offenders are high risk and require the same supervision, but that is not the case. Treat each sex offender case on an individual basis to ensure the sex offender receives proper programing to develop the pro-social skills that may prevent them from re-offending.

Just like any case supervision, probation and parole officers must consider:

  • Nature of the crime;
  • Age of the offender;
  • Presence of social supports;
  • Family history;
  • Education level;
  • Mental health
  • Criminal history and risk assessment to determine if the sex offender is at a low, medium or high risk for reoffending.

Once the sex offender’s risk level is determined, probation and parole officers develop a case plan to address the current needs of the sex offender. Probation and parole work is a balancing act of trying to meet the needs of the sex offender while ensuring the safety of the community. Reintegrating sex offenders back into the community is one of the purposes of our job, but we cannot sacrifice public safety as part of that process.

How does the sex offender registry work?

All states have a sex offender registry that helps track the whereabouts of sex offenders.

The sex offender registry provides court-ordered information to the community on individuals convicted of a sex offense crime. The public receives this information so they can be aware of the sex offender’s physical appearance, age, address, identifying marks, the crime they were convicted of and any special conditions.

In most states, the sex offender is required to provide this information to the sheriff of the county they reside in. Sex offenders have to update the sheriff’s office when they make any changes to the information originally provided, which can include address, phone number, vehicles, email address, employment and people residing with them.

Based upon the crime, certain sex offenders have different reporting requirements about how often the sex offender must contact the sheriff’s office and update their registry status, even though nothing may have changed. For example, Iowa places offenders into one of three tiers and this determines reporting requirements, whereas Oklahoma identifies sex offenders as aggravated and habitual.

Depending on the state, additional requirements might include:

  • A 2,000-foot rule where a sex offender cannot live within 2,000 feet of a school or daycare;
  • Requirement to place signage in their yard on Halloween so neighbors know they are a registered sex offender;
  • A ban on loitering around schools, daycares, libraries and other locations frequented by children.

How long the sex offender has to register is based upon the crime and if the sex offender has been compliant with registry requirements. Some crimes require the individual to register for life, where others may require them to register for 10 years if they no crime law violations during that time.

The first step when supervising sex offenders is to make sure the sex offender complies with the law. This also allows law enforcement to be aware of the offender’s location within the community. Law enforcement can also conduct random compliance checks on sex offenders to ensure they are living where they reported.

Location control of sex offenders

Sex offender registry laws prevent sex offenders from being in certain locations like schools, daycares, swimming pools, carnivals and libraries. Probation and parole officers may also place additional location restrictions. Sex offenders can be prevented from attending certain movies, plays, concerts, festivals or any other place children frequent.

Probation and parole officers can also place exclusionary zones on an offender to prevent them being near certain areas where children or a victim(s) may be. For example, if a probation or parole officer is supervising a sex offender who committed several sexual assaults on a walking trail that went through a neighborhood, the officer could prevent the offender from being in that neighborhood and using that specific trail.

Technology concerns with sex offenders

With the prevalence of technology, our daily life operates through the internet. Most jobs no longer take paper applications and use some form of computing to conduct business. The days of banning all sex offenders from using technology are over. However, sex offenders can still be banned from using computers and the internet if there is a nexus to their crime.

Is it necessary and practical to do this with certain sex offenders? Yes, but not all. The best course of action is to monitor the sex offender’s use of technology.

This area is only going to get more complex. Probation and parole officers will have to develop new and innovative ways to address this matter.

Officers can develop a technology/computer usage agreement that specifically states what the offender can and cannot do when using technology. By doing this, the probation and parole officer can conduct searches of the sex offender’s devices if there is suspicion that the sex offender is violating the agreement. If this is the case, the officer can revoke the sex offender’s use of the technology. Courts are more likely to side with the probation and parole officers when they can show misuse.

Technology can be a great tool to help probation and parole officers more effectively supervise a sex offender. GPS systems monitor a sex offender’s whereabouts at all times. Using GPS, probation and parole officers can pick out certain areas and run point tracking to see if a sex offender on GPS has been in a certain location during a selected time.

Probation and parole officers can also set up inclusion or exclusion zones through the GPS that alert the officer when the sex offender enters or leaves certain areas. Computer programs such as Field Search can conduct quick searches of computers. The program generates a report that probation and parole officers can use for evidence in a revocation hearing or help get the offender more engaged in treatment. The difference between a probation and parole search and a law enforcement search is that not everything located may be a criminal violation; what is found may only be a violation of the offender probation/parole rules.

Treatment priorities for sex offenders

Getting sex offenders engaged in treatment is a top priority for probation and parole officers. Such programs help sex offenders recognize problematic behavior before it results in them re-offending.

A treatment program typically consists of:

  • Individual appointments;
  • Group appointments;
  • The use of polygraphs and or voice stress analyzers to ensure the sex offender is compliant with the law.

Use polygraphs for treatment purposes only and not to revoke an offender’s probation or parole, or have new criminal charged files against them.

If a polygraph indicates the sex offender is violating terms of his probation or parole or has committed a new crime, it can help the officer identify possible avenues for investigation. However, probation and parole officers cannot use the information contained in the polygraph to prove the case in court.

Treatment is the best available tool probation and parole officers have in figuring out the underlying circumstance of why the sex offender committed the original crime.

Permitting sex offender contact with minors

Based upon the crime and the history of the sex offender, especially high-risk sex offenders, they may not be allowed any contact with minors while on probation or parole, including their own children.

While this sounds like the easy fix to stop and prevent the offender from reoffending, it might not always be the best action.

If a probation or parole officer is supervising a sex offender who requests contact with a minor, they should consider the following:

  • The sex offender’s crime;
  • The age of the offender’s victim;
  • The victim’s relationship to the offender;
  • The sex offender’s behavior while on probation or parole.

Reach out to treatment providers to discuss the option of contact. Probation and parole officers and treatment providers may agree to allow limited contact with a minor as long a designated supervisor is present to monitor to the contact and report back to the probation or parole officer and treatment providers to ensure the sex offender’s contact is appropriate.

Warning signs to look for

When probation or parole officers are assigned sex offenders to supervise, officer should research the offender’s previous crime so they know the offender’s MO. Once the sex offender is involved in treatment, this helps probation and parole officers identify possible triggers for the sex offender, the presence of which may indicate if the sex offender is on a path toward re-offending. Probation and parole officers then have a better understanding of things to watch for during office appointments, home visits and collateral contacts.

When working with sex offenders, there are standard things that should raise concern, but there are also subtle signs that indicate the offender is getting ready to re-offend. Probation and parole officers need to look for these subtleties. For example, if a probation or parole officer finds items such as a box of suckers, a flash drive and no computer, or a shopping magazine with a large child’s clothing section during a home visit, this could indicate the sex offender is engaging in risky behavior, which warrants further investigation.


Each sex offender case presents unique challenges. The most important consideration is public safety. Never put the offender’s needs over the community’s needs.

Err on the side of caution, as you can always change exclusion zones and location restrictions.

Tyson Howard is a probation/parole officer with the 4th Judicial District Department of Correctional Services in Iowa, assigned to the High Risk Unit. He is a current member and coordinator for the Iowa Law Enforcement Intelligence Network and a member of the Iowa Narcotics Officer Association. Previously, he held the rank of officer and then sergeant with the Centerville (IA) Police Department for 6½ years. In addition, he was assigned to the South Central Iowa Drug Task Force Special Operations Group for 5 years. He received a Bachelor of Arts in Criminal Justice from Buena Vista University.