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Online Sex Offender Registry Debated

Assembly Republicans want to post addresses, but Democrats are wary of possible vigilantism. Future of Megan's Law in California is at stake.

June 17, 2003|Nancy Vogel | Times Staff Writer

SACRAMENTO — An effort to publish California's list of convicted sex offenders on the Internet has stalled as Assembly Republicans and Democrats tussle over precisely how to pinpoint a sex offender's home.

Republicans want to post home and work addresses on the Internet. But some Democrats prefer a more vague description of where a sex offender lives to guard against vigilantism. There is an urgency to the dispute because the California law to make sex offender information public -- known as Megan's Law -- expires at the end of the year unless renewed by the Legislature.

The Assembly's dominant Democrats have watered down or killed several bills that sought to identify sex offenders by specific addresses. Republicans have responded by redoubling their efforts, and at a news conference Monday accused Democrats of allowing Megan Kanka to die in vain. The 7-year-old New Jersey girl was raped and killed in 1994 by a neighbor who, her parents discovered later, was a convicted sex offender.

"The liberal Democrats in the Assembly are more concerned about protecting sex offenders and where they live than protecting children," said Assemblyman Todd Spitzer (R-Orange). He and other Republicans argued that Democrats should not hesitate to release detailed information about sex offenders in light of a U.S. Supreme Court decision in March supporting the disclosure of sex offenders' names and addresses on the Internet.

Assemblyman Mark Leno (D-San Francisco), chairman of the Assembly public safety committee, said an issue weighty enough to be considered by the nation's highest court should be navigated carefully by lawmakers.

"We're trying to balance the needs of the community and the privacy rights of individuals who committed horrible, obnoxious crimes, but who have served their time and have been deemed by a court to be safe enough to be returned to the community," he said. Leno said he is willing to support a bill that puts the state's registry of 100,000 convicted sex offenders on the Internet for all to see. But he does not want addresses published because he fears vigilantism against those registered. "You've got to look at the worst-case scenarios," he said.

Every state has adopted some version of a Megan's Law to publicize information about registered sex offenders. More than 30 states provide such information on the Internet.

Californians older than 18 can view the registry at police and sheriff's stations, or they may call a special state Department of Justice line -- (900) 448-3000 -- and pay a fee to get information about individuals whose name and other forms of identification they know. The fee is $10 for every two individuals.

The information available on CD-ROM at police stations includes the county and ZIP code of a sex offender's last registered address, as well as a photograph. The convictions for which a person must register include rape, child molestation and kidnapping with intent to commit specified sex offenses.

Assemblywoman Nicole Parra (D-Hanford) is carrying a bill, AB 488, that would extend Megan's Law and put the existing registry information on the Internet. The bill was amended in Leno's committee to locate the residences of registered sex offenders within a quarter-mile grid. That amendment was deleted in the Assembly appropriations committee because of cost.

When the bill reached the Assembly floor for a vote June 5, Parra put it on the "inactive" file so she could continue working on it, said Parra spokeswoman Nicole Winger. Republicans protested the move, saying they wanted to debate the issue.

"We are pursuing other vehicles to get all of the language moving forward," Winger said. "We think it's important to at least get the Megan's Law database on the Internet."

Meanwhile, Assembly Republicans said they would attempt to amend a bill, AB 402, in the Senate to extend Megan's Law and publish the registry on the Internet by July 2005. The registry would include home and work addresses and a description of a sex offender's vehicle.

"This will be my No. 1 legislative priority," said Assemblywoman Bonnie Garcia (R-Cathedral City). In her Imperial County district, she said, some people must drive 50 miles to view the sex offender registry.

State Atty. Gen. Bill Lockyer supports making home addresses available to the public, said spokeswoman Christina Klem. But he is most concerned about getting existing information from police station databases on the Internet, she said. Lockyer's office has estimated the cost at $1 million initially and $400,000 a year for maintenance.

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