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Commentary

Put Teeth Into Megan's Law

Data on released sexual predators is too inaccessible and vague to help parents.

September 25, 2003|Tim Leslie | Tim Leslie (R-Tahoe City) represents the 4th Assembly District, which runs from northern Sacramento through the Sierra foothills to Lake Tahoe.

Because of the inaccessibility of the Megan's Law database, a child in my Assembly district has irretrievably lost a large part of her innocence. Worse, the Legislature is poised to effectively say, "Too bad."

According to police, a young man living across the street from the girl in a rural, secluded neighborhood tracked her family's movements for months. When he had the members' schedules down pat, he broke into the 9-year-old's room and raped her, making a point to do this while both her parents were home. He allegedly told her, "Mommy sent me to teach you how to really love."

I believe that this awful crime could have been prevented. If the Megan's Law registry -- which gives the public access to the names of more than 81,000 convicted sex offenders -- were more accessible and parent-friendly, the chances of this little girl being savagely violated would have been greatly diminished, if not eliminated.

In this case, the registry wouldn't have worked exactly as expected. In fact, the rapist's name wouldn't even have been on the list. But there would have been enough clues to alert the parents, make them vigilant and, with luck, avert the crime.

Right now, the Assembly is set to reconvene on Sept. 29 to consider extending the law, which expires Jan 1. But that's not good enough. Gov. Gray Davis must call a special session so that the Legislature can amend the law, not just reauthorize the database in its current, deeply flawed form.

As it is now, the database is next to worthless. To access it, parents must go into a sheriff's substation (except in a few California communities), not always an easy thing with the inconvenient hours and sometimes distant locations. Once they complete some paperwork -- intimidating to some -- they search a computer database by name or by ZIP Code. A search by ZIP Code brings up the names of all released sexual felons living in that area. No addresses, no streets, no blocks -- only the name, photo, physical description and the code section under which they were convicted.

But ZIP Codes can cover huge areas, filled with thousands of people. And many of us don't know our neighbors across the street -- as was so for the parents in this case -- much less those living around the corner. Yes, there is a chance parents could recognize someone when scrolling through a numbing number of pictures and names. Yes, they could enter the name of a suspicious-looking neighbor, if they happened to know it, and find out whether he is a convicted sexual felon. But this is a needle-and-haystack approach.

Most parents who have an interest in using the database simply want to know: "Is there someone in my immediate neighborhood who poses a probable threat?" You can't get this with the current system. In 2001, just 1,200 of Los Angeles County's 25 million residents stopped by the 29 sheriff substations to use the database.

What if my young constituent's parents could have looked at the Megan's Law database from their own home? What if they could have narrowed the search to their street or even block? What if they could have seen a name, an address, car information or something else that would have helped identify the threat in their midst?

In this case, the perpetrator would not have shown up in a database because he had no previous conviction. But his brother, who lived in the same house, would have shown up, alerting the girl's parents that a sexual predator lived across the street. I believe that would have been enough.

Some say giving the public this information punishes the paroled perpetrator twice. But in a ruling in March, Justice Anthony Kennedy, writing for the majority on the U.S. Supreme Court, said: "Our system does not treat dissemination of truthful information in furtherance of a legitimate governmental objection as punishment. The purpose and principal effect of notification are to inform the public for its own safety, not to humiliate the offender."

Megan's Law must be reformed into a tool with real teeth. It must be made Internet-accessible, as it is in 39 other states. Parents must be provided with critical identifying information. Megan's Law must finally become something parents can really use. Otherwise, moms and dads will largely remain in the dark.

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