Tuesday, February 08, 2005

Pegging Perverts Practically

For some years, California's Megan's Law has provided public access to information about registered sex offenders. Until very recently, however, that access was too limited to provide much help to a child's guardian. So I concluded, at any rate, when I tried to search the Megan's Law database soon after my family's most recent move to California, in 1998. To my chagrin, I discovered that I had to drive several miles to a police station, run a gauntlet of paperwork and unfriendly bureaucrats, and then stand looking at a computer screen while an officer ran my search. I wasn't even allowed to touch the computer's keyboard! For all my effort, I got nearly useless information. Although I could run a search under the name of a particular suspect, for instance, I could not discover who in my neighborhood had been registered.

Now, though, California has made it much, much easier to search for pervs. The Megan's Law website offers a searchable online database of more than 63,000 persons required to register in California as sex offenders. The database offers home addresses for more than half of those persons. Once you click through a disclaimer, you can search the database by name or—most helpfully—by address.

I thus typed in our home address and saw a map of our city dotted with a few markers. Clicking on those, I was able to review the records of the registered sex offender at each address. Those records included photographs, name and aliases, convictions, and scars and tattoos. I discovered nothing too alarming—a result alone worth noting. More notable, however, are those instances where the Megan's Law website bring otherwise unknown risks to a parent's attention.

Consider the experience that one of d's friends—call him "Bill"—had this morning. Bill heard about the Megan's Law website from his waitress, as he was ordering breakfast. He whipped out his browser-enabled cellphone and immediately checked out the website. To his surprise, he recognized a guy that he often sees biking around his neighborhood. However alarmed by that information, Bill, who has a young boy, was glad to have it at his fingertips.

20 comments:

Glen Whitman said...

Wow. Useful to parents, but also a little scary. I'm surprised you didn't comment on the privacy implications. Do you have any reservations about this system, or do you see it as a relatively unalloyed good thing?

Anonymous said...

Well, Tom, you have to admit you were a little alarmed to learn a registered offender lives right across the street from our daughter's school! Fortunately, the principal and the staff are already very aware of this guy--know his face, his car, his wife, his work schedule--and they are ever-diligent whenever a new offender moves into the community. It helps, too, that the principal is on good terms with the sheriff's office.

As Tom noted, the new Megan's law website is actually useful, although i find it disturbing to view those mug shots. Gone are the days when Tom brought home a handwritten list of names of offenders living in our zip code and I spent hours trying to look up the addresses in the local phone book (and with no photos to assist).

//dgm

Tom W. Bell said...

Glen: "[R]elatively unalloyed"? I *guess* I might say that, supposing I understand what you mean! Seriously, though, I think that the benefits to children and their guardians pretty obviously outweigh the costs imposed on registered sex offenders. Sex crimes suffer high recidivism rates, meaning that registered sex offenders pose non-neligible risks to kids. I give no weight, moreover, to the claim that by serving time (assuming they did; many probably just plea-bargained their way to less severe sanctions) sex offenders have "paid their debts to society." I regard that as much more nonsensical than "relatively unalloyed"! Indeed, I'm hard pressed to see why the public shouldn't have similar access to information about *anyone* reliabily convicted of a rights-violating crime.

Anonymous said...

Wow, that's great that you can actually see pictures of the sex offenders and even their tattoos. I wonder why that stupid registered sex-offender is living by the elementary school if he's convicted (and why would his wife allow that or a better question, he has a wife?); that's like someone who's trying to quit smoking going to bars full of smokers.

Yeah, I would have reservations of invasion of privacy rights if they were just regular citizens, but since they are convicted criminals -- people who basically violated other people's rights in one of the worst ways--I think it's justified in this situation to place their info for the public to see.

I'd be able to sleep better at night knowing that my daughter (if i had kids) isn't in danger. The benefits definitely outweigh the costs in this situation.

Not to be such a downer, but kids also have to be careful not just of strangers these days; but people they know, neighbors and even relatives -- are common suspects of molestation. I'd hate to raise my daughter in a world like this.

sk

Tom W. Bell said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Tom W. Bell said...

SK: While I admire your charity, I think you are unduly generous to run-of-the-mill citizens. Why should even a citizen who has not been convicted of a crime have the right to forbid others from exchanging useful information about his past indiscretions? He should not and, in fact, does not.

Both informal and formal mechanisms exist to help us ascertain the sociability of strangers. Informally, we have such things as gossip and evidence of links to trustworth institutions such as churches and clubs. Formally, we benefit from such things as credit ratings, DBA listings, and job references. No less than the Megan's Law website, those mechanisms help us to learn true and useful information about the people we deal with.

By the way, perhaps to your chagrin, the Megan's Law website only offers verbal descriptions of tatoos. Oh, and that guy living across the street from the school is married, according to the principal.

Anonymous said...

Okay, I've been meaning to start a blog, and now Tom's post about Megan's Law has prompted it. You'll find it at www.dgm.typepad.com. I don't plan only to write about that particular topic--in fact, I have no particular topics planned. But I've been thinking about pedophiles for the last few weeks, so I had to get this out.
//dgm

sardonical1 said...

If an individual is actually that dangerous, why do we allow them out of prison in the first place? I have no problem with the intent or enforcement of the bill. However, if the public is actually concerned with child rapists in the community, and if we know that those convicted of this crime do not reform themselves easily, why not raise the sentences?

Anonymous said...

How funny d, I've also started a blog too, but not about pedophilia. I don't think anyone would be interested, but it's: http://voxsentia.typepad.com/susankim/

I don't know how you guys do it. I got tired just uploading pix and doing the 'about' page. I think I like reading blogs religiously and commenting than writing one of my own, we'll see how long it lasts. I can't think of anything interesting to write about. But I'll get there...=)

Tom: Yes, I think the credit info and job references are useful, but to place information too personal would be invasion of privacy that I'm not comfortable with, since I don't feel that I did anything to violate rights of others. But then again, you can pay yahoo or other sources to dig up all kinds of info about people which I feel is a little over-the-line.

sk

Anonymous said...

Oh this reminds me; I freelance on the side for a spy software company which I won't name, but I was shocked by all kinds of crazy devices to snare people. FBI and CIA and suspecting spouses use this software apparently. But I just remembered some of the features of this product which made me uncomfortable just reading about it. Basically features such as, employers can see exactly what words you typed at work, suspecting spouses can monitor *ALL* activity of the spouse, and (get this)--a little device that can be imbedded into a postcard where it can be sent to a cheating husband or lover, and once he opens it, somehow activates a camera in the room! Creepy. Just think, the government spends millions buying from my sometimes employer.

sk

Anonymous said...

Not to stick up for rapists and pedophiles or anything, but I'll note this about being able to look up perverts in your neighborhood--it may be different for CA, I don't know. But where I live, the criminal pops up and it says where he/she lives and everything, and the details about the crime do differentiate between violent sexual crimes and non-violent, but it's still hard to determine who's actually a risk. A statutory rapist that is 18 and had sex with his 16 yr old girlfriend gets listed basically the same as someone who was 40 and had sex with a 12 yr old. To me, those are two really really different things, and it sucks for someone whose girlfriend's parents got mad at him to get charges pressed against him that classify him as a "sexual offender." Take a look at the date when the crime was committed and calculate the person's age at the time it was committed. That gives some idea as to what the offense might have been.
Ellen

Glen Whitman said...

From what I can tell, California's system provides some information about the age of the victim (14 or under vs. 15-16; I didn't see any for 17-year-olds, even though 18 is the age of consent). But it doesn't provide any info about the date of the incident, so you can't peg how old the offender was the time.

andrea said...

I dunno.

I agree with Glen in the rights protection issue. I'm not saying that this site shouldn't exist, but I it is borderline. Just because someone has committed a crime shouldn't give the state the right to revoke rights permanently. Because of the nature of the victims, I want to fall on the side of being pro-megan's law site... however, I feel this is a situation where I may be allowing my heart to lead me places where I am less than objective.

I do wonder about the overall utility in a site like this. With so few people actually utilizing it, the possible false sense of security (watching one neighbor while another can do something equally heinous)… I wonder if this doesn’t just incentivize leaving your neighborhood to find your next victim, which decreases the chances of actually catching the criminal in the long run.

And, if the actual utility from a site is so low, does it still justify rights violations?

I find it more interesting, however, just how vigilant you and your wife were in utilizing this service. I guess I always felt that the parents who were the most interested in a site like this had the kids who were least likely to be violated – because kids with parents that involved often don’t have as many opportunities to be “picked off” (as it were), and are more likely to be empowered at the older ages when it’s the parent-of-a-friend issue. So – bravo on your vigilance (your daughter is extraordinarily lucky), but it probably isn’t decreasing the number of child molestations that will take place in the state of California this year.

Jacqueline Mackie Paisley Passey said...

Personally, I think criminal records of anyone who has victimized someone (assault, theft, fraud, etc.) should be public information and as easily accessible as possible. I think when you victimize someone you give up your moral right to privacy and secrecy about your past actions.

Tom W. Bell said...

andrea: I'm surprised that you assess the Megan's Law website's utilty so confidently. I cannot be so sure, myself, but what evidence I have suggests that you underestimate the site's efficacy. When d went to the principal of AJ's school with information about the registered offender she'd discovered across the street from the school, the principal proved to be waaaaay ahead of us. She had even been in touch with local police about the matter. And, reassuringly from a fairness point of view, she had learned that the crime was of a "he said/she said" nature. That doesn't mean he wasn't guilty, of course, but I found it interesting that the principal knew and took due account of that evidentiary weakness in the case against the local offender.

But it's not just the principal who knew. Moms, especially, tend to network about these things. And d has found that several of the other moms at AJ's school knew about the site and had used it. Not all, mind you; d was surely an early adopter. You can bet, however, that those other moms checked out the site very soon after speaking with d. Social networks, like computer networks, really get the job done.

Glen Whitman said...

Just for the record, I didn't actually take a stand against Megan's law. I just expressed some qualms (not definitive ones) about the Big Brother-ish quality to the website. I mostly find Tom's arguments on that score convincing, but I was surprised he didn't address the privacy issue to begin with.

andrea said...

I'm still not very convinced.

Your elementary school is the exception, not the rule, in being so vigilant with this information. But even if all schools were as on-the-ball, it doesn't justify such an intrusion of privacy - the same outcomes could be reached (setting up a notification system for child services programs) without needing everyone to know that this guy had a he-said-she-said 20 years ago.

As for the social network. Assuming that this would hold true for every single child, it is still only spreading information on the local people who have already offended. Like I said, this just incentivizes leaving your neighborhood to commit the crime.

For a crime with such malicious recidivism, do we really think that being socially ostracized is going to decrease the return to deviance?

I think this also encourages convicted child molesters to move into neighborhoods that are the least likely to track/have access to this information (poor neighborhoods)... and I hate it when government programs repeatedly sacrifice the most volatile for the sake of the children who already have considerable protections around them.

Jacqueline Mackie Paisley Passey said...

Given the difficulty child molestors are going to have finding work with that on their criminal record, they're already more likely to be moving into the poor neighborhoods.

Anonymous said...

[just for the record, i'm not picking on you andrea; i just don't agree with your observations.]

first, andrea seems to be suggesting that we "own" information about our public selves, and no one should have access to it unless we consent. but why should that be? if a person violates the rights of another, why should he be entitled to keep that a secret, particularly if the action suggests danger to others and has become a matter of public record (like a criminal conviction)?

second, i'm not sure what information andrea uses to support her conjecture that these guys will tend toward living in the poorer neighborhoods. if you look at the website, you will see that they can reside in neighborhoods across the economic spectrum. in fact, we have friends who live in gated community that happens to also be home to not just one, but two, molesters. one friend describes his felonious neighbor as a smart, wealthy, apparently nice [but he knows better] former CEO. you'll never catch that guy living in the barrio.

//dgm

Anonymous said...

ick! agoraphilia is not worksafe sometimes. my boss came by my desk yesterday and was hovering over my computer when i suddenly realized, in front of us were the words, "Pegging Pervs Practically" on a site called "Agoraphilia." (doesn't pegging have several meanings as does agoraphilia? and just the words perv just sounds bad) i was too embarrassed to shut it down or minimize the window. i just left it be and i *know* he read the title. i think he thinks i'm a perv now wasting time at strage sites at work. ;)
No real harm though, in case you're wondering.

sk