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NJ: Reports support Internet Registry.


December 31, 2000

While New Jersey lawmakers debate putting the state's list of registered sex offenders on the Internet, officials in Florida and other states say their online listings of sexual predators have paid large dividends.

In one Florida case, an online search by Boy Scouts officials found that a troop volunteer was a sexual offender who was violating his parole. In another, a single mother discovered that a man she was dating was a sexual predator who had abused children.

Those kinds of reports are fueling efforts for New Jersey to join at least 27 other states that have put sex offender registries on the Web.

"While New Jersey was once in the forefront of legislation to see that notification should occur about these offenders, today, sadly, New Jersey has lagged behind the nation," says Assemblyman Joel Weingarten, R-Millburn, the prime sponsor of a bill allowing people to use the Internet to see photos of and information about sex offenders deemed to be a moderate or high risk of committing another sex crime.

The state Assembly passed Weingarten's bill by a 68-0 vote earlier this month and it is now slated to be considered by the state Senate.

The legislation is an offshoot of Megan's Law, which allows community residents and workers to be informed if a sex offender moves into their neighborhood.

The Assembly vote on the bill came slightly more than a month after a referendum to amend the New Jersey Constitution to clear the way for the Internet directory was approved by New Jersey voters by a 3-1 margin.

Under the bill, the New Jersey State Police and the state attorney general would be responsible for setting up a Web site that would provide an offender's name, address, picture, workplace, Social Security number, age, race, gender, height, weight and hair and eye color, as well as details about the offender's crime and risk assessment.

That would put New Jersey in line with many states around the country, including Connecticut, Delaware, Florida and New York, that have established Web sites listing sex offenders.

"We've been very pleased with the results of the site we have and the usage it's gotten," said Sgt. Paul Vance, a spokesman for the Connecticut State Police, which launched that state's Web site in January 1999.

"From August through the first week of December we've been getting 176,000 visits to the site each month, so it's definitely being used," he said.

Connecticut's site, which is updated on a daily basis, lists biographical information, including the date the offender was added to the list and the last time the person's address was verified.

"Obviously we've heard grumblings from offenders who don't want to be listed," Vance said. "Some have told us they don't want their landlords to know about their past, but they realize it's the law."

Connecticut's site, like many around the country, allows users to search for offenders by municipality, while other states let people visiting the sites search by county.

In almost all cases, the Web sites include warnings against misusing the information about sex offenders.

"Warning. Any person who uses information in this registry to injure, harass or commit a criminal act against any person included in this registry or any other person is subject to criminal prosecution," reads the advisory on Connecticut's site.

The warning is shown in large, red letters.

While an increasing number of states have posted sex offender Web sites, there is little agreement on which criminals to include.

New York's site lists only those deemed most likely to repeat sex crimes, said Scott Steinhardt, a spokesman for the state Division of Criminal Justice Services.

By contrast, Florida lists all people convicted of sex crimes, dividing them into two categories, sexual offenders and sexual predators.

"We've decided that it's in the best interest of our citizens to keep them as fully informed as possible," said Denise Reeder, a senior management analyst for the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, which launched its online sex crimes registry in October 1997.

"We've seen results that clearly have resulted in people being able to be safer because of the information that we've provided."

Under the New Jersey legislation, information on offenders deemed by the state to have a moderate or high likelihood of committing new sex crimes would be available online to anyone with a computer and Internet access.

People seeking information on offenders deemed to have a low likelihood of repeating would have to know an offender's name and some other piece of identifying fact, like a birthday, to gain access to the data.

One New Jersey sex offender, who identified himself only as "Jim," said the prospect of having his name and background information posted online poses a risk to his livelihood and safety.

"If my name, address and place of employment go up on the Internet, my boss has told me I'll be fired," said Jim, 39, who was released in 1997 after serving 10 years in prison for sexually abusing a 14-year-old girl and an 11-year-old girl who were friends of his stepdaughter.

"I've told him that he can't fire me because of a Megan's Law notification or because of my record, but he says he'll find some reason," said Jim, who lives in Collingswood and is considered to be a moderate risk.

"If I can't work, I can't live," he said, adding that an Internet registry threatens his safety.

"I've already been harassed by people who have received Megan's Law notifications about me," Jim said. "I can only imagine the effect that having my name and address put on the Internet will do. Being put on the Internet is not something I agreed to. It's being thrust upon me after I've completed my sentence, so it's a second punishment and that's not right."
Advocates of online sex offender registries say public safety outweighs all other considerations.

"People need to know who these sexual predators are and where they are in order to protect themselves and their children," said Marc Klaas, president of the Klaas Foundation for Children. His 12-year-old daughter, Polly, was abducted and killed in 1993.

"I don't want anyone to take the law into their own hands and engage in vigilantism, but my right to protect myself and my family is more important than the rights of an offender," he said.

Defense attorney John Furlong, who has argued legal challenges to Megan's Law in New Jersey, disagreed.

"Nobody, whether they're an offender or not, wants to have their address or other biographical information on the Internet without some idea of who's going to see it and how they're going to use it," he said.

"We may not like it, but sexual offenders have rights just like the rest of us," he said. "The problem is that the majority of Americans don't care about that. They want to treat these people as pariahs and not allow them to have any semblance of normalcy."

Ed Barocas, an assistant deputy public defender in New Jersey, agreed.

"The problem with Megan's Law from the very beginning is that people who have no business learning about sexual offenders are getting this information," he said. "That's what we've argued, and the courts have agreed. By putting this information on the Internet, all that will happen is that problem will be made worse."

Around the country, federal courts have split on the issue, with some ruling that Internet registries are permissible.

But courts that have interpreted New Jersey's Megan's Law -- including the state Supreme Court and the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Philadelphia -- have relied primarily on the U.S. Constitution in imposing restrictions to protect the privacy of offenders.


Source: New Jersey Online, by Mark Perkiss