Intelligence unit searches for 375 'missing' registered sex offenders

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The Independent Online

A national intelligence unit is tracing 375 "itinerant" convicted sex offenders who have disappeared since being re-leased from jail to avoid being monitored by the police.

A national intelligence unit is tracing 375 "itinerant" convicted sex offenders who have disappeared since being re-leased from jail to avoid being monitored by the police.

Some of the missing criminals, who include rapists as well as paedophiles, are known to have moved abroad to continue their offending, while others are travelling around the country in vans and caravans.

A recently created squad, the serious sexual offenders unit, at the National Criminal Intelligence Service, is tracking the sex criminals, who have failed to register their addresses with the police, amid fears that they are using their anonymity to assault more children.

Concerns about the number of people who have gone "underground" were heightened by the murder of Sarah Payne, the eight-year-old who was abducted and murdered in West Sussex in July.

Norman Trew, head of the serious sexual offenders unit, which was formed in April and staffed by detectives from the police and customs, said there were 375 unregistered offend-ers at large. Chief constables have asked the unit to trace the missing people.

Mr Trew said: "We are looking for itinerants - people who are registered sex offenders who adopt an itinerant lifestyle in order to avoid the controls of registration."

He continued: "There's cause for concern, as there are some people who have registered and moved away and deliberately tried to launder their history, or those who have not registered in the first place.

"We know that some have gone abroad. Some have gone to southern Ireland, some are in Europe, including Spain and Germany." He added: "Some were living in converted caravans and vans."

Mr Trew said his officers had information about convicted paedophiles, including a teacher, who had gone abroad to work with children. Another favoured occupation was as a sports coach, he said.

Anyone convicted of a sex offence since 1997 must notify the authorities of their whereabouts. On 1 September, 13,400 sex offenders should have registered with the police, but there are 375 people in violation of the rules. The number of people on the register is expected to grow at a rate of 2,000 every six months. Part of the problem in tracing the "missing" people is that there is no separate Sex Offenders Register. Details of individuals' crimes are kept on the Police National Computer alongside details of all other offenders.

In response to the furore created by the News of the World's decision to "name and shame" offenders, which led to rioting and vigilante mobs attacking the homes of suspects, many of whom where innocent, the Government announced proposals to toughen the laws on this issue.

Jack Straw, the Home Secretary, has proposed changes to the law that include giving released sex offenders only 72 hours to register their names and addresses with the police, who will be given powers to take fresh photographs and fingerprints.

The maximum penalty for delaying registration will be increased from six months to five years. Individuals on the Sex Offenders Register could also be imprisoned for up to five years if they travel abroad without telling the authorities.