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CALIFORNIA | ON THE LAW

More Details on Sex Offenders to Go Online

County approves an upgrade of its locator website, which will include photos, aliases and addresses of high-risk violators.

August 20, 2004|Joy Buchanan | Times Staff Writer

Los Angeles County residents seeking detailed information about violent sex offenders living in their neighborhoods or near their children's schools now must travel to a local sheriff's or police station to use a special database.

They could also call the California Department of Justice and request the information, but that would cost $10.

Soon, some of that same data will be available close to home for free. By October, county residents will be able to access information about violent sex offenders, including photographs and addresses, on the Internet.

The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors unanimously approved an upgrade of the county's sex offender locator website this month to include photos, names, aliases and addresses of so-called high-risk sex offenders. These offenders, according to the state Department of Justice, have been convicted of at least one violent sex offense.

Supervisor Michael Antonovich was behind the motion.

"The additional identifying information on the website will enhance our residents' ability to protect themselves and their families from dangerous sex predators," Antonovich said.

Although there are 583 high-risk sex offenders living in California neighborhoods, according to the state, only a handful of counties post their information online. Supporters argued that the online listings help residents protect themselves; opponents say they violate privacy rights and might hurt the public by leading offenders to avoid registration.

There are 15,561 sex offenders registered in Los Angeles County, according to the state justice department officials.

Of those, 97 are considered high-risk.

The county's site, www.lacounty.info, in the public alerts section, now contains a link to a map that shows where sex offenders are registered. Red dots show the locations of high-risk sex offenders. Visitors can type in an address or the name of a school to see how close a registered offender might live.

The information was offered around the state at computer terminals in police stations beginning in 1997, after the state implemented its Megan's Law legislation. The law is named after a 7-year-old New Jersey girl who was raped and murdered in 1995 by a convicted sex offender living across the street.

Jonathan Williams, deputy chief information officer for the county, said there was a great demand for that information when the county's site went online two years ago. On the first day, there were 2 million hits. The site averages more than 30,000 visits a month. Williams expects more once the new information is added.

When the changes are completed, visitors will be able to click on a red dot and obtain detailed information, including a brief description of the crimes committed, for individual violent offenders.

"It saves time," Williams said. "It winds up being a significant benefit to the public."

It will cost about $15,000 to upgrade the site, Williams said. Though the board approved the changes this month, the state's plans to change how offenders are classified will delay the site's availability to the public.

A bill pending in the state Assembly could give the state legal authority to list information about tens of thousands of registered sex offenders online through the Department of Justice. But the bill will not affect the county's website.

Det. Art Ybarra of the Fresno County Sheriff's Department said the agency's site, which lists four violent sex offenders registered in its jurisdiction, has been up for about a year.

"This is just another step to keep people informed," Ybarra said. "It's something that, little by little, I see other agencies going to."

But that might be harmful to the public, warned Paul Gerowitz, executive director of the California Attorneys for Criminal Justice, an association of criminal defense lawyers and others.

"By putting the information on the Internet, it allows people to go on fishing expeditions," Gerowitz said. "It might subject people who are trying to be productive members of society to harassment and vigilante actions."

Gerowitz said violent or cruel action toward sex offenders could discourage them from registering even though they are legally required to do so.

Hallye Jordan, spokeswoman for the California justice department, said the information on its websites is accurate and local authorities must verify all information, including addresses, before posting it online.

"It's not to shun people or look at people with disdain, but it's for parents so they can say, 'Don't go into his garage. I don't care if he has the coolest pingpong table in the neighborhood,' " Jordan said.

Williams said posting information online does not violate privacy because the data is already public and can be accessed by anyone.

"It doesn't make sense to make people travel miles to a computer terminal when they can use a computer in their home or library," Williams said.

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