How To Locate Offenders

Written by Laura Sands and Fact Checked by The Law Dictionary Staff  

Anyone willing to search public records can learn how to locate offenders who are serving time in jails and prisons throughout the United States. Registered sex offenders who are not imprisoned can also be located with relative ease by searching public databases. Not all convicted criminals are as easy to find, however. For example, people seeking information on felons released from Federal prison before 1982 may find the process a bit challenging. Juveniles and adults housed in very high-security prisons, known as Communication Management Units (CMUs), may require more effort in locating, as well.

 

Who is Looking for Offenders?

People may have an interest in locating offenders for a variety of personal and civic reasons. While the most obvious reason may be because a criminal is a friend or a family member, other people may also want to know how to locate offenders due to safety concerns, especially after a convict has re-entered society. Those most concerned about safety may be the victims of an offender’s crime and others who wish to avoid contact with an offender previously convicted of a particularly violent and/or a sexual crime. Concern for victims and potential victims is one reason why jails and prisons make information about an inmate’s location available to the public at no cost. In general, this applies whether an inmate is serving time in a jail or a prison and even includes inmates who are housed in privately-owned prisons.

 

What Information is Shared?

Basic information like an offender’s name, date of birth, and where they are being held in custody is generally made available for free to the public. In some instances, this information may be obtained while using a personal computer. Certain information, however, may require an in-person visit to an office where those records are kept or may even require special permission, such as a court order, before access is granted. Those hoping to locate offenders who are not in custody may also find that some private information, such as home addresses, may not be freely available due to privacy laws. Registered sex offenders are not afforded such privacy, however, as Megan’s Law requires that home addresses for these individuals be made freely available in order to alert the public that a convicted predator is in their midst.

 

How to Locate Offenders in Custody

If an individual is accused of a crime and being held in custody, that person’s name and the location of the jail where they are currently housed can generally be determined by contacting the local police or sheriff’s department by phone. Most jurisdictions also offer a database, which may be searchable via Internet access. Depending on the level of crime a person has been convicted of, if that person remains in custody she or he can usually be located by searching either a county database or a state’s inmate locator database. If the person was convicted of a Federal crime, however, their name and location will generally be listed on the United States Department of Justice website.

 

Communication Management Units

Known as CMUs, Communication Management Units are operated by the Bureau of Prisons. Inmates housed in one of these facilities may or may not be as easy to locate as other prisoners due to the nature of their classification and the particular jurisdiction where they are imprisoned. Operating primarily to hold individuals suspected of the most serious crimes, including terrorist activity, anyone wanting to know how to locate offenders housed in a CMU should contact the Bureau of Prisons directly as information about an inmate’s housing may change without notice and may not match what appears online.

 

How to Locate Registered Sex Offenders

Since 1996, the United States Department of Justice has required all 50 states to have reporting requirements for people convicted of offenses, such as rape, molestation, and other forms of sexual assault. A person wanting to know how to locate offenders falling into one of these categories need only check with their state’s Sex Offender Registry or the Dru Sjodin National Sex Offender Public Website. Both sites can be accessed for free via the Internet and will offer the name and address of any sex offenders in a given area. Registries will also publish a mugshot photo of an offender to make it easier for the public to recognize her or him by sight. In some states, a convicted sex offender may even be required to register their place of work or business, their license plate number, or, when applicable, where she or he attends school. In addition to individual states cooperating by making the name and whereabouts of sexual predators freely available to the public, the District of Columbia, Guam, Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and several Native tribes also cooperate with registration requirements.

It should be noted that Federal law does not automatically require all sexual offenders to register with their state. Certain guidelines must be met before a person can be forced to adhere to such a ruling, so locating offenders who aren’t required to report their whereabouts may be difficult. Further, those hoping to locate offenders should also know that Alabama, California, Florida and South Carolina are the only states that require offenders to remain on a registry for an entire lifetime. In other states, someone convicted of a crime sexual in nature may only be required to report their whereabouts for a limited time.

 

How to Locate Federal Inmates From Decades Past

Unfortunately, prior to 1982 the Bureau of Prisons did not have an organized, computerized system of tracking Federal inmates released from custody. Since then, the BOP has worked to manually input all relevant information- such as an inmate’s name, date of birth and release date- into their current digital system, but there is still much work to be done before every former Federal inmate’s information will be accessible. Until then, those hoping to locate offenders held in a Federal prison and released before 1982 can search the National Archives Records Administration for more information. Since people often relocate, information regarding inmates released may be outdated, but someone searching these records may find useful clues about how to locate offenders in the present day.

 

County Jail Searches

In locating offenders who may be detained in a county jail system, a visit to the County’s website may be helpful. Just as in locating state offenders, many county jurisdictions maintain a database of inmates and people who’ve been released on bail, probation, or parole. Not all jurisdictions provide this information and, even of those who do, information may not be up to date due to a high turnover of inmates being processed in and out of the system. Anyone interested in how to locate offenders who may be connected to a county jail will probably find the most useful up-to-date information can be obtained via a phone call to the county jail.

 

Other Exceptions

If a person previously convicted of a crime has her or his record expunged, this means that their record will be sealed and that it will not remain accessible to the public. Anyone hoping to learn how to locate offenders with sealed records will find doing so impossible without a court order. While such records are sealed from the general public’s view (which includes potential employers, creditors, etc.), the courts and law enforcement personnel are still able to see information pertaining to their crime and last known whereabouts.

Juvenile offenders also may not be as easy to locate due to sealed records. In some states, those convicted of a sexual crime may not be required to register on that state’s sex offender registry. For information on how to locate offenders who may be underage, a person should inquire with the court where the minor was convicted.

 

Conclusion

In most cases, knowing how to locate offenders really boils down to knowing how to search the Internet. Most convictions are considered public information and information regarding an inmate’s conviction are generally supplied free of charge. Where that information is not available online, unless a record is sealed, it is still available for public scrutiny through the appropriate county, state, or Federal clerk’s office. Whether searching online or through a government office, anyone who knows the name, date of an offender’s birth, and state or county where they were convicted can usually find information on where the offender is being held in custody. Records of offenders not in custody may provide clues as to where an offender may reside in terms of the city or state where they were released. Of course, in cases where a person was convicted of a sexual crime and required to register on a statewide database, exact information as to that person’s home address and possibly even their last known place of employment may be available.

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