WASHINGTON – Maryland officials will post the state’s sex offender registry online Monday, allowing anyone in the world to look up the name, address and picture of more than 2,000 convicts.
Maryland joins the District of Columbia and 29 other states that post information about their sex offenders on the Internet. The Maryland list — which had 2,282 individuals Friday – will be searchable by name, ZIP code and type of crime.
The American Civil Liberties Union in Maryland expressed serious concerns about a web site listing sexual offenders who have already served their time. “This is an additional debt,” to society, said Suzanne Smith, spokeswoman for the Maryland ACLU.
But a spokesman for the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services said the state is posting the registry “because the public wants it.”
Leonard A. Sipes Jr. said that about 65 percent of the calls, e-mails and letters to his office over the last several years have been requests for electronic access to the registry, which had been available by mail.
Federal law requires that states establish and maintain a sex offender registry, but does not require that the list be online.
Maryland’s registry tracks both state and federal sexual offenders for a minimum of 10 years, and repeat violent offenders or sexual predators for their entire lives. The registry goes back to 1995 for sex offenses against children and 1997 for all other categories.
Sipes said that, in addition to public demand, the department put the registry online “to ask the public if they recognize anyone on the list.” He said the department did not intend to “stir up hysteria,” but it would like to know, for example, if someone sees a pedophile on the registry hanging around playgrounds.
Sipes said the department took about two years to determine what kind of online list to develop.
“Every web site in the country has been challenged in court,” he said. “There is no consensus as to what is the appropriate method.”
U.S. Justice Department Program Manager Devon Adams could not say whether every state with a web site has been sued, but she agreed that there have been quite a few lawsuits.
Besides information on offenders, the Maryland site will contain warnings against vigilantism and points for parents to discuss with children. It will also warn people against being lulled into a false sense of security if the list does not turn up an offender in their neighborhood.
Smith agreed that Maryland put a lot of thought into its online registry, but she still had numerous concerns about the web site. Smith said the ACLU is “very concerned” about giving people worldwide the ability to compile data on convicts who have “served their debt to society.”
She called the effects of an online list “potentially stigmatizing,” and worries that broad distribution of the information could lead to greater harassment of offenders. She also said it will make it harder for offenders to reintegrate into society or resolve the problems they had in the first place.
Smith also worried that information on offenders whose convictions later get overturned might remain on the Internet indefinitely.
“Obviously, everyone wants children to be safe,” Smith said. “The question is, how do you do that?”
Sipes agreed that the list raises difficult questions, but said that they must be weighed against the need to inform the public about sexual offenders.
“The bottom line is citizens want access to information on sexual offenders and we are complying with that request,” Sipes said.
He said the department expects a lot of public input and that, “We will be redesigning immediately.”
The list will be updated weekly at first, and later daily.
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