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Opponents say public posting on Internet does no good

April 29, 2002|BY ANDREA ROWLAND

andreabh@herald-mail.com

Convicted sex offenders should register, but the registry should not be available to the public, say an individual rights group and a local therapist who treats sex offenders.

"There is no evidence that public access to registration reduces sexual offending," said Larry Stouter, a licensed clinical counselor with offices in Hagerstown and Thurmont, Md.

"It's the politicians playing to the hysteria of the crowd."

The registry can help law enforcement agencies, parole and probation officers and therapists manage ex-offenders in the community, said Stouter. He advocates close monitoring of sex offenders and community notification on a case-by-case basis to enhance community safety without the shortfalls of public access registration.

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"I'm all for managing sex offenders very, very closely. I know the damage that can be done," he said. "But publishing the registry is worse than ineffective."

It provokes public hysteria, further victimizes sex offenders' families, and increases the risk of relapse, Stouter said.

The registry lumps the "very dangerous" with the "relatively benign" offenders, forcing the public to make the distinction without all the information needed to do so, he said.

"What comes to mind is the pedophile lurking in the park ready to snatch their kids," Stouter said.

Those serial sex criminals are around, he said, but they compose a small percentage of sex offenders.

ACLU concerns

The potential for vigilantism is among many concerns the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland has about posting the sex offender registry on the Internet, ACLU Public Education Associate Meredith Curtis said.

Other ACLU concerns include:

- The possibility that innocent people living at listed addresses could be harmed, especially since the state Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services has acknowledged the address information provided by the registrants might be inaccurate or outdated.

- The chance of stigmatizing ex-offenders who may pose no further threat to public safety. The online registry doesn't indicate how likely an individual is to commit another offense.

- The false sense of security the published information might lend to the public. The presence or absence of an individual's name or address is not an absolute indicator of public safety, as noted on the Web site.

- The chance of exposing victims of sex crimes.

"A lot of times sex offenders are within families," Curtis said.

Several children of registered sex offenders whose names and addresses are now on the Internet have already been ridiculed and harassed in school, Stouter said.

The registry's publication has caused other problems for convicted sex offenders - and their families - who are trying to turn their lives around, Stouter said.

One offender was fired from his job, he said. Another lost his apartment. Several registered offenders have received death threats.

Relapse danger

The stress that kind of fallout causes is more than just a roadblock to rehabilitation, the therapist said.

It increases the sex offender's likelihood of relapse because the cycle of abuse is often triggered by stressful events, Stouter said.

"A major component of treatment for sex offenders is learning to manage stress in appropriate ways," he said.

"A significant amount of treatment time has already been spent on dealing with registration issues in our sex offender therapy groups that could have been better spent on normal stress management or other necessary treatment issues, as opposed to the fear of receiving death threats," Stouter said.

These and other concerns have prompted lawsuits targeted at shutting down online sex offender registries across the nation, said Leonard A. Sipes Jr., spokesman for the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services.

"We expect to be no different," Sipes said.

Courts across the nation have been divided on their rulings about the issue, he said, ordering some online registries to shut down while allowing others to remain in operation.

Courts have consistently ruled that online sex offender registries are not secondary punishment, Sipes said.

The issue in now before the U.S. Supreme Court.

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