When Lawrence Singleton -- the man convicted for the 1978 rape and mutilation of a teenage hitchhiker -- was arrested again early this year on charges of murdering a prostitute, public outcry was tremendous. How could our justice system allow someone who was clearly dangerous live on the streets among unsuspecting neighbors? Suddenly, the debate between the public's right to know and an ex-criminal's right to privacy was again pushed to the forefront.
Singleton's recent arrest came 10 years after he was paroled for the rape. He served only eight years of a 14-year sentence for what became one of the most notorious crimes in California history. But following his release from jail, public protests kept him out of every California town in which he attempted to settle. In fact, Singleton's public rejection even forced him to live for a time in a trailer behind San Quentin Prison. And when his parole was up and he moved to Tampa, Fla., to live with his sister, neighbors threw oranges, shot BB guns, and even planted a pipe bomb in a place he was known to frequent.
While some argue that keeping the whereabouts of Singleton secret would prevent such harassment and allow him a second chance at a normal life and the best chance to rehabilitate, others feel the public has every right to know if he's living next door. In this case, officials in Florida say there was very little they could do to monitor him, yet simply knowing he was living nearby could have prevented the stabbing death of 31-year-old Roxanne Hayes.
Public ignorance of the whereabouts of dangerous criminals may soon become rare, as technology makes information readily available. Technology gives people the means, and they seem to be finding ways to use their access. More and more, the public's right to know is winning the debate.
For example, numerous police departments around the nation now post "most wanted" mug shots on the Internet. From Phoenix to Nashville, these departments are going online, hoping citizens will recognize a fugitive and report his or her whereabouts. Some even offer rewards for information that may help solve a crime.
In California, several new programs help inform the public. In 1995, a 900-number hotline was set up allowing residents to check if someone is a registered sex offender. Before that, it was illegal for a law enforcement officer to notify citizens about a sex offender living in the neighborhood. Now, the hotline idea is being taken even further as the result of a new sex offender notification law called Megan's Law. Megan's Law requires the state Department of Justice to develop a CD-ROM database with the pictures, names and whereabouts of most of the state's registered sex offenders.
As of March, the sex offender database only contained data on 892 people currently classified as the most dangerous. The completed, expanded CD-ROM will be released in July, and it will include most of the 57,000 registered sex offenders in California. At that time, visitors to any local police station in the state will be able to type in their ZIP codes and find out if a sex offender lives nearby.
Another new system in California is helping crime analysts find parolees that have committed subsequent crimes. The parole Law Enforcement Automated Data System (LEADS) is a tracking system that makes a wide variety of information on parolees available to law enforcement personnel via an intranet. Although this system can't prevent crimes before they happen, it can make repeat criminals easier to find.
"The recidivism rate in California is generally in the neighborhood of two-thirds within one to three years," said Dennis Kessinger, a crime analyst for the Redding, Calif., Police Department. Redding is one of five police departments now using the LEADS system. "These people are very