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Some residents alarmed

police advise using caution

April 29, 2002|BY ANDREA ROWLAND

andreabh@herald-mail.com

As soon as Lori Stenger heard Maryland's registry of sex offenders was posted on the Internet, she went online.

"I wanted to know if any of those creeps were living near me," said Stenger, 24, of Hagerstown.

She and many other Washington County residents logged onto the Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services' Web site at www.dpscs.state.md.us last week to browse the list of more than 1,450 sex offenders' names. The list includes their last reported addresses, photos and information about their convictions on crimes ranging from inappropriate touching to child sexual abuse and rape.

About 76,000 people statewide performed a total of 143,000 searches on the site when it was posted Monday, said Leonard A. Sipes Jr., spokesman for the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services.

"We put up the list because of public demand," Sipes said.

More than 60 percent of calls to his department during the past two years were requests for public access to the registry, he said.

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The site lists 85 known sex offenders with Washington County addresses.

The number of registered sex offenders in the county has nearly tripled since last year. The majority of the registered offenders were convicted for crimes against children, Hagerstown City Police Chief Arthur Smith said.

Washington County Sheriff Charles F. Mades attributed the sharp increase in the number of registered child sex offenders in the county to the fact that these criminals were not required to register if convicted before October 1995, when the state's Child Sex Notification Law went into effect.

Gov. Parris N. Glendening on Thursday signed retroactive legislation that will require repeat sex offenders from the mid-1970s through the present to register.

More child sex offenders convicted after 1995, when the initial law first took effect, are now being released from prisons, Mades said.

"I was surprised there were so many in Hagerstown," Stenger said. "It's scary."

Safety tool

The registry was made public to boost awareness, not to cause alarm, Mades said.

"It's just another tool for public safety to keep people aware," he said.

Scott Hale of Hagerstown said he wants to know the whereabouts of people in his community convicted of violent sex crimes or sex offenses against children. It just makes him feel better to know, he said.

But Hale wishes the Web site gave more detailed information about the crimes so it would be easier to distinguish between offenders who are dangerous and those who might not be, he said.

"I'm not worried about a 19-year-old guy who had sex with his 16-year-old girlfriend," said Hale, 41. "But if it has anything to do with violence or children, I want to know."

The Rev. Blaine Feightner, who ministers to inmates at the prison complex south of Hagerstown through his work with the Community Correctional Services Committee, agrees that the public has a right to know about convicted sex offenders in the community. Public safety outweighs the rights of convicted criminals, he said.

"We should do whatever it takes to protect our children from predators," Feightner said.

Mades said the information on the registry might prompt people to take safety precautions they should be taking anyway - like talking to their children about being wary of strangers.

It's important for parents to have honest, age-appropriate conversations with their children about the dangers of being alone with unfamiliar adults in residential settings without prior parent approval, and about what kinds of contact are appropriate and how children should respond when they feel uncomfortable about being touched in a certain way, Sipes said.

Patricia Rheam of Hagerstown plans to "keep a close eye out" for convicted sex offenders, and tell children she knows to "stay far away" from registered offenders with a history of violence against children, she said.

"People should know who's in their neighborhood," said Rheam, 40.

False security

Mades and Sipes warned against a false sense of security the online registry might foster.

"It's the (sex offenders) who aren't registered who we should be worried about," Mades said.

The majority of sex offenses aren't reported to law enforcement authorities, Sipes said, and the majority of people who commit sex offenses against children aren't caught.

The online registry "doesn't mean people should be complacent," Sipes said.

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