Riverside County legislators and law enforcement officials, contending that residents need better access to information about convicted sex offenders, are pushing for an Internet site that would not only name the offenders, but display photographs, addresses, convictions and criminal tactics.
"This will give our parents a lot of information and it allows our children to be safer," state Sen. Jim Battin (R-La Quinta) said. "Riverside County is known as tough and progressive when it comes to public safety. This should be our next and necessary step."
Jim Venable, a Riverside County supervisor, said Monday that he will ask his colleagues next week to let the Riverside County Sheriff's Department post the information on its website, as law enforcement agencies in San Jose and San Mateo County have done.
"The data is already in our stations, so I would think we can [post it on the Internet] within 60 days of approval," Riverside County Sheriff Bob Doyle said.
The department's website currently shows the general location of sex offenders. Residents can access detailed information only by going to sheriff's stations.
"This current system is not as convenient as sitting inside your own home, being able to check out who's living around you," Doyle said.
County officials point to the San Jose Police Department's sex offender website as a model. But the American Civil Liberties Union and other groups have expressed concerns that detailed postings violate the civil rights of people who have served their time and that they could provoke vigilante actions or force the offenders into hiding.
"These websites give the public a false sense of security, in which they think they know who to look out for, and that the only bad man is the one down the street," said Liz Schroeder, an ACLU associate director in Los Angeles.
"I have yet to see any empirical evidence that this makes the public safer," said Paul Gerowitz, executive director of California Attorneys for Criminal Justice.
"The most dangerous predators have received long sentences," he said. "What you have are people who've completed their sentence, trying to move on. But this [public information] drives a wedge between them and wanting to be a productive part of society. It does drive some of them toward an underground world."
In 1996, President Clinton signed Megan's Law, which permitted the release of sex offender information. The law was named for 7-year-old Megan Kanka, who was raped and killed in 1995 in New Jersey by a convicted child molester who lived across the street from the girl.
The California Legislature put the law into effect in September 1996, and law enforcement agencies have since provided sex offender information to the public by allowing access to a CD-ROM database maintained at police and sheriff's stations.
The California State Sheriff's Assn. and other law enforcement groups have pleaded for expanded public access, calling the present system "cumbersome, restrictive and intimidating.""There's a paradox with the existing law," said Nick Warner, legislative director of the California State Sheriff's Assn. "Because the existing law doesn't authorize this expanded access, does that mean law enforcement agencies should be prohibited from putting this information out there? We're not prohibited from doing this, but there's no protection under the penal code. It is unclear how much we can put out there."
In San Jose, Sgt. Ron Helder said the city attorney approved a push by the Police Department and the City Council for a more detailed sex offender website.
Since its Dec. 22 inception, the site has received more than 21,000 hits, Helder said.
Warner said he doesn't believe a county or city could be held liable for posting the Internet information, even in the worst-case scenario of a vigilante using that information to attack or kill a convicted sex offender.
"The county would not be subject to any penalties caused by a criminal action by another person," Warner said.
Riverside County Dist. Atty. Grover Trask said the major concern is guaranteeing that the information is accurate -- that convicted sex offenders are properly tracked.
Battin said at least 39 other states have approved the release of detailed information about sex offenders on the Internet, and that two 2003 decisions by the U.S. Supreme Court have affirmed their right to do so.
The high court has ruled that the Internet postings were not punitive actions against the convicted sex offenders.
Said Trask: "It's not like California is out on its own, pushing the envelope by itself. There is constitutional protection."
In a dissenting opinion in one of the Supreme Court rulings, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote that revealing so much detail about registered sex offenders "calls to mind shaming punishments once used to mark an offender as someone to be shunned," like branding a murderer with the letter "M."
State Sen. Dennis Hollingsworth (R-Murrieta) is seeking to place a state initiative known as the Sexual Predator Punishment and Megan's Law Expansion Act on the November ballot. An estimated 374,000 signatures are needed by April 16 to place the measure on the ballot.
The measure, in addition to allowing for statewide Internet postings of detailed sex offenders' information, would make it a crime for sex offenders to lure children over the Internet, increase penalties for child pornography crimes and require sex offenders to renew their drivers' licenses annually.