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Posting of Sex Offender Registries on Web Sets Off Both Praise and Criticism

5-22-2000 National:
Four years after Congress began requiring states to maintain sex offender registries to track the whereabouts of criminals once they leave prison, states around the country are now going a step further, posting that information, along with photographs and sordid details of crimes, on Web pages accessible to anyone with a computer and a modem.

Since 1996, 21 states, mostly in the South and the Midwest, have put the registries on the Internet. Several others, including New York, Maryland and Wisconsin, are planning to begin sex offender Web sites of their own in the next few months. New Jersey's Legislature is now considering a bill that would require the state police to post its sex offender registry online.

''It's the wave; everyone's doing it now,'' said Scott Matson, a research associate with the Center for Sex Offender Management, established by the United States Justice Department in 1997 to train law enforcement officials.

Proponents of the trend, including many state officials, say expanding community notification to the Internet is a valuable and relatively simple way to disseminate widely information on dangerous sex offenders.

Critics say online registries, while popular with the public, are a ''quick fix'' to a complex issue and could stigmatize and victimize marginal offenders and ultimately produce more sex crimes than they prevent.

''They don't tell you how to protect yourself and your children; they don't give the degree of risk this person poses to you or not,'' said David A. D'Amora, the director of a treatment center for sexual abusers in Middletown, Conn., and a national consultant to sex abuse treatment centers. ''If you're going to do any type of registration, then it's really incumbent on the system to go out and educate the community. Just throwing a bunch of things up on a screen is like throwing gasoline on a fire.''

Notification laws have long generated intense reactions from those who believe that they help protect communities from sexual predators and from others who contend that they needlessly stigmatize marginal offenders and keep the most dangerous offenders from getting help.

California, home to about 70,000 registered sexual offenders -- more than any other state -- started the first sex offender registry in 1947. Most other states have followed suit since 1994, when Congress enacted a law, known as the Wetterling Act, to force state officials to create registries of offenders and track their whereabouts.

Two years later, Congress added an amendment, modeled after Megan's Law in New Jersey, named after 7-year-old Megan Kanka of Hamilton Township, N.J., who was raped and killed in 1994 by a twice-convicted pedophile who had quietly moved into the neighborhood. The law forced states to notify communities when sex offenders moved in.

Before there were online sex offender registries, anyone wanting information on specific offenders had to request it from local or state police agencies. That is still the method in New York and California.

In New York, where about 10,000 offenders are registered, people can get information on specific felons by calling a toll number, which costs 50 cents, and supplying an offender's last name, date of birth or ZIP code, for instance. New York State's Criminal Justice Services Division is planning to start its own sex offenders Web site next month. Only data on the most violent criminals, including juveniles, convicted after January 1996 will be posted online.

California's huge database is made available to local police departments on compact disks. To get information on offenders, residents must give their names, allowing the police to track who requests information about whom.

Proponents say moving those sex offender registries online is consistent with the intent of the law that created them, making it easier to make the public aware of sex offenders in their communities.

''These changes should make sex offenders think twice before offending again in Wisconsin and that should certainly make this state a safer place,'' Gov. Tommy G. Thompson said last month when he announced the state's plan to post its registry online.

But many experts say no one has adequately thought through the consequences of the online registries. One worry is that the registries have the potential to lead to retributive violence against offenders. As notification laws become ubiquitous, so have incidents in which ex-offenders were harassed by neighbors, evicted by landlords, fired from new jobs or beaten by revenge-minded mobs.

*Last month, two men beat a 59-year-old convicted child molester with a baseball bat in North Fort Myers, Fla., and threatened to kill him if he came near any neighborhood children.

*In September 1999, four men in Dallas severely beat a 27-year-old retarded man whose address, a group home for the disabled, was erroneously listed on Texas's Internet registry as the residence of a child molester.

*In July 1998, a 23-year-old Linden, N.J., man, reacting to a flier distributed by the police, fired five bullets from a .45-caliber handgun into the house of a recently paroled rapist. No one was injured; the suspect was charged with aggravated assault.

*That same month, neighbors in a trailer park in Washington State burned down a vacant mobile home days before a sex offender was scheduled to move into it, after six years in prison. In 1993, vigilantes in Lynnwood, Wash., burned down the home of a twice-convicted sex offender, Joseph Gallardo, after the police notified neighbors of his release. The advent of Internet-based criminal registries has led to a broader debate over how to increase public safety.

Making identities of offenders available to anyone browsing the Net significantly increases the likelihood of further attacks, many experts say.

Roxanne Lieb, director of the Washington State Institute for Public Policy, said the debate over online registries highlighted two conflicting trends in how law enforcement agencies operate.

On one hand, she said, is ''the desire to have things be easier and easier to access,'' and on the other is ''an interest in having some confidentiality associated and care associated with that information.''

''At least initially, it's very cheap, and so it's a very easy law to pass,'' Ms. Lieb said of online registry laws. But she said there was a great disparity between the amount of information many states put online and the responsibility they took for its accuracy. Many states, including Connecticut, rely on the criminals to update their addresses.

''It's evolutionary, it's awkward and painful,'' Ms. Lieb said of the online migration. ''I think it's important to remember that at least what we started with was not knowing, and that is worse.''

But some critics of putting criminal data online say the Internet will scare people needlessly, lead to retributive violence, and, as a result, create more sex crimes. ..more.. by PAUL ZIELBAUER

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