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 likely to re-offend. The beauty of this system is we'll now be able to query all known offenders who meet certain criteria based on witness descriptions or other information. It's kind of like a pointer system to help us solve the crime."
The system stores information on parolees such as detailed physical descriptions, distinguishing marks, street names, aliases, etc. Then, when a crime is committed, witness descriptions can be compared with the database.
"In a matter of seconds," said Tip Kindel, assistant director of communications for the California Department of Corrections (CDC), "based on the information provided, the system will match your information with the parolees that are in that particular area and who have committed similar crimes."
Redding began using LEADS in January. "It's a crime analyst's dream to have information that's current, accurate, and covers parolees statewide at your fingertips. Especially since they can be a very transient population," said Kessinger.
Kessinger said the LEADS system came in handy while investigating a recent series of robberies in Redding. "The way our databases have been set up in the past -- and most police agencies are -- you had to query with a name first. If all you had was a description, you were out of luck. But the LEADS system lets us access 180,000 or so records of information containing descriptions and even the types of cars parolees drive. This allowed us to get a list of parolees who met the description and who had a robbery background or were on parole for robbery. So it's a very nice way of shortening your query list -- getting down to some probable suspects."
Parole LEADS began as Assembly Bill 3X, authored in 1994 by state Assemblyman Joe Baca. AB3X required the CDC to conduct a pilot project sharing automated parole information with San Bernardino County. It further required CDC to submit a report to the Legislature regarding the feasibility of this effort. When the system was completed, the feasibility report looked promising. With the support of the CDC's Statewide Law Enforcement Consortium, the director of corrections authorized the expansion of the project in July 1996.
"Now we can deploy the system on a statewide basis by contracting with individual counties," said Kindel. Currently, CDC has contracted with Los Angeles, the city of Sacramento, the Sacramento County Sheriff's Office, San Bernardino and Redding. Kindel said they are especially happy about working with Los Angeles, since that's where approximately 40 percent of the people in state prisons come from.
The fact that the system utilizes Internet technology will also make it easier for more jurisdictions to participate in the project. "We were able to have immediate access to the data without spending a lot of money for hard cabling or fixed lines," Kessinger said. "There was talk at one time that each agency might have to spend up to $50,000 to do a backbone throughout the state for all the law enforcement systems. There was also talk about CDC spending upwards of $3.5 to $16 million, depending on the platforms needed. But the LEADS system is implemented at no cost to an agency except for a PC and Internet software."
A BETTER FUTURE?
With today's three strikes laws, it's highly unlikely an offender such as Singleton would be released after serving only eight years of a 14-year sentence. Such offenders today are generally not eligible for parole until 85 percent of their sentences are served.
But even criminals who serve their full sentences are likely to re-offend. Technology won't make this problem go away, but it is helping people become more aware of the dangerous people around them and helping law enforcement find the most dangerous offenders faster.
"We may not have any proactive systems yet that can prevent people like Singleton from striking," said Kessinger. "But the use of technology for things like the LEADS system is certainly a tremendous asset to a crime analyst, and -- ultimately -- to the public."
The parole LEADS system -- located at CDC's datacenter -- was developed primarily in-house. According to Kindel, the department is currently working with Digital Equipment Corp. on enhancements, such as making information available in patrol cars.
The project, which originally was done using Netscape and UNIX, has now moved over to Microsoft NT, Internet Information Server, and the Internet Explorer browser. The intranet uses 128-bit encryption to restrict access to people other than law enforcement personnel.
Counties that wish to join the system must have a certain amount of computer capacity, sign an agreement with CDC and pay a small fee. "We're very excited about it," said Kindel. "It's going to be a very valuable law enforcement tool, and it's a partnership that we're looking forward to having with local law enforcement agencies."
help protect the
public from crime,
is lending a hand.
PROBLEM/SITUATION: The public has little information about the whereabouts of released offenders.
SOLUTION: Technology is quickly making more information about criminals available and may help prevent some crimes from happening.
JURISDICTIONS: San Bernardino, Calif.; Sacramento, Calif.; Redding, Calif.; Los Angeles; Tampa, Fla.
VENDORS: Digital Equipment Corp., Microsoft.
CONTACT: California Department of Corrections, 916/445-7682.