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Danger in Abusing Megan Laws

Risk to society is greater if sex offenders are driven underground

September 22, 1997

By now, most of us have heard of cases in which police have released the names and addresses of so-called high-risk sex offenders under California's version of Megan's Law. Considerably less attention has been paid to the fact that concerned citizens can now access, at local police and sheriff's stations, a statewide computer database identifying serious and high-risk sex offenders by name, photograph, criminal history and the ZIP code in which they presumably live.

Public access is one of the most important aspects of the sex offender notification laws here and around the nation, but there's a caveat. If the privilege is abused, open access can do far more harm than good and make it even more difficult to keep track of an already elusive population.

Computer terminals are available at all but a few of the district station houses of the Los Angeles Police Department. So far, very few citizens have bothered to take a look at the sex offender data.

You won't find home addresses, just ZIP codes. You can view photographs and criminal records and can jot down notes, but you can't take away any photos or police documents. So what's the value of the information? First, it's likely to tell you something that you should have already realized by now: that there probably are sex offenders living within a few dozen city blocks of you.

To Eric A. Lillo, commanding officer for the LAPD's juvenile group, good reasons to look through the files include the possibility that you might recognize the name or face of someone who holds an inappropriate job, like a child molester who is coaching the local Little League baseball team. If you are suspicious of someone, you can check to see whether that person is in the sex offender database.

But Lillo rightly notes several negative results that could ruin whatever benefit the database provides. One of the worst would be vigilante behavior, such as harassment or violence directed at a listed offender. Forcing a high-risk sex offender to go elsewhere might seem a fine idea, but what about some other neighborhood forcing such a person into the vicinity of your home?

"The most important thing for law enforcement is to know exactly where these people are located, and that's already a problem," Lillo says, adding that matters will only get worse if released sex offenders decide not to register as required. Currently, for example, Ventura County has inaccurate addresses for one out of every three registered sex offenders. In parts of Los Angeles County, two-thirds of the high-risk sex offenders are not living where they claimed they would be.

The Megan's Laws were designed to keep citizens informed of dangers that might exist around them. That will happen only if the information is used calmly and wisely. Driving a sex offender underground simply erases a piece of information: You used to know where he was, and now you don't.

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