Ilya Andriyanov/

Justice Department Isn't Tracking All Sex Offenders in Witness Protection

Inspector general raises ‘significant concerns’ about public safety risks.

The government’s Witness Protection Program was founded 45 years ago to safeguard witnesses to serious crimes. But lax oversight of sex offenders participating in the program may be jeopardizing public safety, the Justice Department inspector general reported on Wednesday.  

Supervision of the U.S. Marshals Service Witness Protection Program includes insufficient “steps to mitigate the risk posed by program participants, including sex offenders, who commit crimes after being terminated from the program,” the watchdog reported.

During the course of an audit, the IG found that managers of the witness protection program—begun in the early 1970s to relocate threatened witnesses, often providing them with new identities—went from not knowing how many sex offenders it was supervising in July 2013 to identifying 58 such individuals by July 2014.

These included 10 convicted of offenses such as rape and sexual assault of children before being admitted to the program, 10 who were convicted while in the program and 38 convicted after leaving the program. At least four sex offenders, DOJ reported last August, are still under witness protection. “We believe that the DOJ generally did not use adequate safeguards to protect and notify the public and law enforcement about the risk,” the watchdog wrote.

As of September 2014, the Witness Protection Program over the decades had processed 8,648 individuals, plus 9,967 of their dependents, some 11,257 of which were set up with a new name, according to the U.S. Marshals Service.

Responding to an earlier audit, Justice managers had begun addressing the adequacy of safeguards, such as procedures for notifying state, localities and other law enforcement organizations when offenders are relocated in their area. But auditors found bureaucratic inertia.

“While we were provided with USMS directives and procedures that had been marked as 'under review’ since 2007,” said the heavily redacted new report, “DOJ did not have finalized policies in place to address the unique concerns regarding relocation, employment, and residency of sex offenders participating in the DOJ WITSEC Program until September 2014, after we recommended that they implement such policies.”

The IG also “identified a loophole in the program process that leaves law enforcement agencies unnecessarily uninformed about these individuals and unable to utilize all available tools to perform their duties.”

The report made two recommendations, one partially redacted, aimed at improving the identification of sex offenders in the program.

Justice Office of Enforcement Operations managers, responding to a draft of the report, accepted the recommendations, agreeing that relocating such offenders “raises public safety concerns. For this reason,” they wrote, “it has been the department’s policy to provide relocation services to individuals convicted of sex offenses only in extraordinary situations.”

(Image via Ilya Andriyanov/