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Sex-offender registry provides too much opportunity for for trouble

April 29, 2002|BY TIM ROWLAND

This week I promised to write about the remaining races for state office. I have a confession to make. I lied. It wasn't a lie exactly, but there's something about hashing over politicians two weeks running that makes everything go a bit black - probably for you as much as me.

Besides, this week the state unveiled its Internet site which publicizes the addresses of sex offenders who are registered with authorities. I did the same thing everyone else did: I immediately called up the Website to see if there was any danger of a Catholic church moving into my neighborhood.

What a mess that is. It brings to mind the words of Thomas Jefferson, who said there never would have been an infidel if there never were a priest.

Granted, there are some terribly messed-up men in a system that is in obvious need of reform. But the danger of painting "the Catholic church" with a broad brush of shame is that it's patently unfair to priests as a whole, the great, great majority of whom are wonderful men of kindness and spirituality.

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Obviously it's not parallel to say that there are some good sex offenders and some bad sex offenders. Still, sweeping judgments are troublesome, and the sex-offender registry has some serious flaws.

Police called the list "alarming" and Americans are nothing if they are not easily alarmed. The Internet registry flagged 60 sex offenders living in greater Hagerstown (about 90 percent of them within spitting distance of The Herald-Mail offices, not that I'd read too much into that).

Clear Spring has seven, Boonsboro five, with one to three living in the county's other small towns, save Smithsburg. They might consider a sign: Welcome to Smithsburg - Sex Offender Free Since 1992.

There's some good that comes in being aware that a neighbor of yours might have problems. But this registry tends to force people into jumping to conclusions that may or may not be accurate or fair.

As an example, the registry shows there is a sex offender living a couple blocks from me. I know the house. I am on a nodding acquaintance with a man who I've seen around the house a few times.

So of course, it's human nature for my mind to now race ahead and tar this man as an attempted rapist. I won't look at him the same tomorrow as I did yesterday. I might mention in passing to friends and loved ones that they should give this guy a wide berth.

The problem should be pretty clear. The guy I'm thinking of may not be the sex offender at all. He may be a brother. He may be a friend, a roommate, a renter, a handyman. I'm certainly not about to walk up to him and say happily "Hey bro, are you the wack job perv I read about on the 'Net?"

The registry purports to have photos of these offenders, but it doesn't. And if a guy really is a fiend, women in particular aren't going to want to draw attention to themselves by going up and asking his name.

The second difficulty is that not all crimes are created equal. A man who is unjustly accused by a disturbed child may plead guilty to a minor offense, just to save himself and his family the public embarrassment of a trial.

It happens, and I think people are aware that it happens. Some teachers I know who love children are no longer comfortable giving them hugs for fear their touching may be misconstrued. What men don't feel awkward around small children anymore, feeling accusing eyes, be they real or imagined?

What of a man who has never touched a child in his life, but gets wrapped up in a police Internet sting? What of a nasty domestic situation where a man is accused out of spite? In all these cases a man may plead rather than stand the horrors of a public trial, even though he may be innocent, or his guilt gray at best. Yet these men will be lumped in on the registry with full-blown rapists and serial pedophiles.

On the Website a man's crime may be listed as "third degree sexual abuse." How many people have a clue what that means? Your child may be safer in the home of a third-degree sexual abuser than in the home of a family that leaves loaded rifles around the kitchen, yet it's the former who is singled out for humiliation.

Third, I frankly have zero confidence in the state's ability to maintain this Website in an accurate and up-to-date fashion. Cops are overworked, budgets are tight and bureaucrats don't always care. I absolutely believe there will be cases where the sex offender moves out of his apartment, an innocent, God-fearing man moves in, and no change is made in the state's Website. This is highly dangerous ground and the state has set the stage for some grossly unjust cases of mistaken identity.

Certainly if its accuracy could be guaranteed, if the whole story about the crime could be told, it's valuable to know where a real sex offender lives. Moreso than with other types of crime or disorder, sex offenders are historically harder to rehabilitate, change or cure.

It would be wise to tell your child that someone living in such-and-such a house has had a brush with the law - to tell them not to be rude or scared, but neither to dally near the front porch or accept an invitation inside.

That's assuming, of course, you're sure you have the right person. And as Sheriff Charles Mades says, it's the ones not on the list you have to worry about.

Broadly drawn laws - knee-jerk responses by legislatures - based on one or two tragic but unusual cases are generally a bad idea. Like most Websites, this one will fade into oblivion after the initial stir. Based on the potential for mistaken identities, the potential for ostracism or even violence against innocent people, the potential for unwarranted hysteria and the fact that it is flatly impossible to fit many disparate crimes into one single penalty box, that is probably a good thing.

Tim Rowland is a Herald-Mail columnist.

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