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States help public track convicted sex offenders

February 03, 2001

States help public track convicted sex offenders



By ANDREW SCHOTZ / Staff Writer


Fliers and Web sites have become modern-day scarlet letters for society to identify sex offenders.

Information about sex crimes and offenders - including what they look like, where they live and work and the cars they drive - is circulated widely by state governments and posted on the Internet.

The idea is to protect children from criminals who, despite completing jail or prison sentences, still may have uncontrollable impulses to molest.

For all its intended good, the practice has some detractors.

Martinsburg, W.Va., defense attorney Kevin Mills says a free flow of information about criminals long after their cases are adjudicated is intrusive and oppressive.

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"It is a punitive sentence," Mills said. "I understand the community's right to know, but you have to balance it with constitutional protection."

Maryland Attorney General J. Joseph Curran advocates that parents and guardians be well-informed.

"I'd come down on the side of the child victim, who's extremely vulnerable and can suffer long-ranging psychological damage if preyed upon by one of these predators," he said.

"The public wants to know. Period," said Sgt. Nancy Shaheen of Pennsylvania State Police's Megan's Law Unit in Harrisburg.

In the Tri-State region, West Virginia provides the widest access to information. The state posts profiles of certain sex offenders at a Web site after holding public meetings on sexual abuse.

Maryland and Pennsylvania give schools and youth-related organizations information about sex offenders. Otherwise, citizens must take the initiative to find out about offenders in their neighborhoods by asking the police.

While Pennsylvania only discloses information about the most serious offenders, Maryland's public registry has all levels of convictions.

Maryland may be the next state to take sex offender tracking into cyberspace.

State Sen. Donald F. Munson, R-Washington, and Sen. Alex X. Mooney, R-Frederick/Washington, are sponsoring a bill mandating the names and photos of registered sex offenders be posted on the Internet.

The state already has the option to do so, and is considering using it. Maryland Secretary of Public Safety and Correctional Services Stuart O. Simms told a House committee on Jan. 25 the agency is working to put names on the Internet.

If the Maryland General Assembly approves $200,000 this session, the department expects to start putting information online this year, probably with photos.

States started putting out information about sex crimes and criminals after convicted sex offenders killed two children.

In 1989, a man living in a halfway house abducted 11-year-old Jacob Wetterling at gunpoint in Minnesota. Jacob was never seen again.

That incident prompted a 1994 federal law requiring convicted sex offenders to register with law enforcement agencies for a minimum of 10 years and, in some cases, for life. States must compile lists of offenders.

In 1994, 7-year-old Megan Kanka was killed in New Jersey by a convicted sex offender living across the street. The offender lured Megan into his home where he strangled, raped and asphyxiated her, according to published news reports.

Megan's name was affixed posthumously to a 1996 federal law that allowed states to disseminate information about high-risk sex offenders to the community. This replaced a privacy provision in the Jacob Wetterling Act.

Most states passed sex offender registration and notification laws in the 1990s. Without overriding federal guidelines, however, policies differ greatly. Some states provide information to whomever wants it, while others are selective.

When violent sex offenders - "predators" - or anyone convicted of a sex offense from out of state moves into a Pennsylvania community, state police prepare a flier with information about the offender and the crime. The flier is given to people who live or work within 250 feet of the predator's residence, or to the closest 25 buildings, whichever is the greater distance.

In each Pennsylvania county, the director of the children and youth services agency, the superintendents of public and private schools and the licensees of day-care centers are notified, along with the president of any college within 1,000 feet of a predator's home.

Anyone who didn't get a flier can go to the local state police barrack and request one.

But "by and large, people don't ask for it," said Sgt. James Brown of the Chambersburg barrack.

The Pennsylvania law does not say how far information can circulate beyond the basic notifications.

When information about two offenders reached Chambersburg area schools, "We used it internally," said Assistant Superintendent for Curriculum Instruction Eric Michael. "It went to the principals, as needed."

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