Articles

Online Sex Offender Info Rapidly Expands

States are under pressure to comply with the Adam Walsh Act by July -- or lose 10 percent of their share of funding under a federal grant program that pays for state and local police programs.

by / January 15, 2009

This article reprinted with permission from Stateline.org

States are under pressure to comply with the Adam Walsh Act by July -- or lose 10 percent of their share of funding under a federal grant program that pays for state and local police programs.

Arizona parents who want to find out whether a suspicious e-mail has been sent by a registered sex offender now can check the sender's e-mail address against the state's database of convicted molesters.

Utah residents can sign up for e-mail alerts to notify them when a sex offender moves into their neighborhood.

Wisconsin's online registry provides maps to let users know exactly where the closest sex offender lives.

And in Texas, the state's sex offender registry -- which includes more than 54,000 people -- now features information ranging from offenders' work addresses to their nicknames and even shoe sizes.

The four states are among more than two dozen that quietly have added a wide range of new services -- and new categories of information -- to their online registries of convicted molesters. All 50 states have publicly searchable sex offender registries, which are accessible through a national database kept by the U.S. Justice Department, a Web site that averages 2.3 million page views a day.

The new features come as states approach a July deadline to comply with the Adam Walsh Act, a 2006 federal law intended to crack down on the estimated 674,000 registered sex offenders in the United States. The law was named after the murdered 6-year-old son of "America's Most Wanted" host John Walsh, who was informed by police in Florida on Dec. 16 that his son's killer was identified after more than 25 years.

The Adam Walsh Act requires all states to adopt the same minimum standards for registering and tracking sex offenders, including the information they post online. Under the law, states must include where sex offenders work and go to school, the cars they drive, the aliases they use, the crimes they have committed and more.

The law also calls for some juvenile offenders as young as 14 to be included in online registries, though many states so far have balked at that provision, arguing that juveniles should not be singled out publicly.

Many state lawmakers, corrections officials, advocacy organizations and members of the public have criticized the Adam Walsh Act, questioning its costs, demands and whether aspects of it do more harm than good. The posting of new information about sex offenders also has drawn criticism. Blogs and other Internet forums have buzzed as visitors voice frustration over the trove of details now available to anyone at the click of a mouse.

"The Justice Department says it's there simply for information and not for punishment. If they were in our shoes, I think they'd reconsider," said Carlos Robles, 32, a registered sex offender in Austin, Texas. Robles -- who received probation for engaging in consensual sex with a 16-year-old when he was 20 -- said nonviolent and low-risk criminals should not be included on the Texas registry.

States are under pressure to comply with the Adam Walsh Act by July -- or lose 10 percent of their share of funding under a federal grant program that pays for state and local police programs. No states have been deemed compliant with the Adam Walsh Act yet, though they can apply for a pair of one-year extensions.

At least 13 states last year and 12 states in 2007 passed laws authorizing the collection of new information from sex offenders, according to the

National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL). Some states passed the laws on their own, while others did so specifically to meet federal Adam Walsh Act demands, NCSL said.

While some of the new laws stipulate that the collected information can be posted only on internal law enforcement Web sites, many states are adding some of it to their public registries as well, in accordance with Adam Walsh Act requirements. Wyoming, for instance, is among a dozen states where residents can view license plate numbers or vehicle descriptions of the cars driven by registered sex offenders.

A Stateline.org analysis of all 50 state sex offender registries, conducted in December, found:

  • All states include information about the crime committed by each sex offender or, in some cases, general information about the victim. New York, for example, includes whether sex offenders committed their crimes against family members.
  • At least 29 states provide mapping to show exactly where sex offenders live. Some states offer significantly more information on their maps. Washington state shows where sex offenders live in relation to schools, day care centers and other places where children gather.
  • At least 19 states allow users to sign up for e-mail or other alerts to inform them when sex offenders change status, including when they move. North Carolina allows residents to sign up for telephone alerts as well.
  • At least 18 states list information about where registered sex offenders are employed, though details vary by state. West Virginia, for example, posts only the city and county in which offenders are employed, while Virginia provides the name of the employer and the company's address.
  • At least 12 states post information about the cars sex offenders drive, such as vehicle make and model or license plate.
  • At least four states -- Arizona, Colorado, Florida and West Virginia -- allow users to search for sex offenders by their online identifiers, such as e-mail address or instant messenger screen name.

Those who support the surge in new online information say it can help law enforcers, parents and other members of the public keep a watchful eye on sex offenders, including many who are described as sexual predators and have used the Internet to commit their crimes.

Supporters say states like Delaware -- where each sex offender's profile includes a phone number to contact the police agency responsible for monitoring the offender -- are innovators that provide useful information that can be helpful for reporting and even deterring crime. Other states that allow users to provide tips directly to police through their sex offender registries include Michigan, Minnesota, North Dakota, Oregon, Tennessee, Virginia and Wisconsin.

In Connecticut, state Rep. Mike Lawlor (D), chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, is pushing for the state to include more information in its sex offender profiles, including whether victims are male or female, an adult or a minor and an acquaintance of the offender or a stranger.

"On Connecticut's registry, only the technical name and number of the crime of conviction is listed, which is meaningless to citizens hoping to make decisions about the risk of a nearby offender," Lawlor recently wrote in an opinion piece published in the Hartford Courant.

But the expansion has generated resistance from civil libertarians, privacy groups and a small but growing number of advocates for sex offenders who say some of the new information could subject former offenders to harassment or even violence. Media reports in recent years also have tied sex offender suicides to the public registration requirements they faced.

Critics say some online information, such as the size of offenders' shoes in Texas, serves no reasonable law enforcement purpose.

"I'm just curious, how is that keeping us safe?" said Mary Sue Molnar, who helped found Texas Voices, a support group for registered sex offenders in Texas. Molnar said one recent change to Texas's registry -- the posting of offenders' places of employment, in accordance with the Adam Walsh Act -- has caused law-abiding offenders she works with to lose their jobs.

Battles over the Adam Walsh Act and similar state-level laws are playing out in state and federal courts around the country. Most have focused on whether the act's requirements can be applied retroactively to those who committed their crimes before such laws were approved. Legal experts say few major cases have challenged the new information being included in online registries.

Leonard Sharon, a criminal defense attorney in Maine who has defended sex offenders, said it could be difficult for lawyers to win lawsuits asserting sex criminals' right to privacy. "Your right to privacy is restricted once you've been convicted," he said.

Meanwhile, a crucial undercurrent in the debate over the expansion of online sex offender information has been whether the information itself is reliable. A December report by the inspector general of the Justice Department found that public sex offender registries run by the states are "inconsistent and incomplete."
"The public," the report said, "cannot use the state information ... as a reliable tool to identify all registered and non-compliant sex offenders in their communities."

Moreover, if state Web sites inaccurately list firms that employ sex offenders, companies could be "stigmatized or potentially jeopardized by vigilante responses, however infrequent they may be," said Wayne Logan, a law professor at Florida State University who has studied sex offender laws.

Another twist is that not everyone who is listed on state sex offender registries is a sex offender, according to Kristen Anderson, director of case analysis with the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, which monitors 57 sex offender registries, including those of the states and overseas territories.

Fourteen states include non-sex criminals in their registries, including arsonists and drug offenders, Anderson said. She said she did not know which 14 states because some information submitted to her organization from the states is provided anonymously.

But perhaps the most contentious aspect of the Adam Walsh Act -- its requirement that states add some sex offenders as young as 14 to their publicly accessible registries -- appears no closer to being resolved, even with the law's rapidly approaching deadline. Logan some some states have a "principled objection" to posting personal information about young offenders online.

While many states have included some juvenile offenders in their online registries for years, Logan said, those offenders usually were convicted as adults. The Adam Walsh Act, by contrast, would include those convicted in special juvenile courts for aggravated and other serious sexual crimes.

Many states are wrestling with whether to adopt that requirement. Wisconsin, for instance, has collected information from 1,900 people who committed their crimes as minors, said John Dipko, a spokesman with the state Department of Corrections. But the details are published only on the state's internal Web site for law enforcement -- not on the public registry.

Stateline.org intern Amanda DeBard contributed to this report.