April 2000Vol. 1, No. 2Pros and Cons of Online Sex Offender Registries
States continue to grapple with how best to comply with "Megan's Law." This Federal law enacted in 1996 requires States to implement sex offender registration and notification requirements. States are required to release any relevant information about registered sex offenders necessary to maintain and protect public safety. Megan's Law also allows disclosure of information collected under a State registration program for any purpose permitted under State laws.
Under such guidelines, States retain significant discretion to determine the circumstances under which the disclosure of registration information to the public is necessary. A variety of approaches among the States has emerged, ranging from total disclosure on the Internet (including names, addresses, photos), to a more limited notification (such as allowing people to come to a police station to view a CD-ROM containing the information).
Proponents of disseminating information on sex offenders through the Internet give the following reasons:
- Information on the Internet is much more easily accessible to the public.
- Several instances occurred in which private citizens spotted sex offenders engaging in potentially dangerous activities, in violation of their paroles.
- Citizens have a right to know if there is a sex offender living in their neighborhood.
- The right of innocent children and others to safety outweighs the right of sex offenders to privacy.
Opponents of disseminating the information through the Internet give the following reasons:
- Records are often incomplete, inaccurate, or out-of-date.
- This practice, in effect, extends offenders' sentences
- This practice makes it difficult for ex-offenders to find employment or housing.
- The practice raises concerns about vigilantism
- Availability of this information could lead to "networking" among sexual predators.
Currently, 74 government agencies in 25 States disseminate sex offender information on the Internet, and proposals are being considered in a number of other States. APBnews.com (http://www.apbnews.com), a national, daily news service, maintains a database (http://www.apbnews.com/resourcecenter/sexoffender/index.html) with links to the sex offender sites and a synopsis of the information found at each site. (Editor's note: these links are no longer active.) A link to recent APBnews.com sex offender news coverage, with details about registries in the States, is included with the database.