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How useful is online sex offender info?

Hot on the Web

This column originally ran in ComputorEdge on August 2, 2002
(Issue 2031, Back to School)

While writing last week's column about the growth of commercial and government services now able to be transacted online, I came across one Web site that I'd read about but never visited. Or even thought that much about, for that matter.

The site in question is the "San Diego County Regional 290 Sex Registrant neighborhood map," available at the Automated Regional Justice Information System (ARJIS) site ( ARJIS is a regional law-enforcement computer network, and part of its charge is to comply with California state law making public certain information on registered sex offenders.

The heart of the Sex Registrant site is a clickable map that you can use to see where registered sex offenders live – within a block or so, anyway. The map is intentionally lacking in certain detail, so you can't pinpoint exactly where a registered sex offender lives.

Nor does it give names.

For more detailed information on any registered sex offenders in your neighborhood, you have to go to the Sheriff's Department or, in larger cities, the local police department. There, you can access a CD-ROM from the California Department of Justice that includes, according to the ARJIS site, "the high-risk or serious sex offender's name; aliases; photograph (available on more than 65 percent of the individuals); physical description; ethnicity; date of birth; scars, marks, and tattoos; registered sex offenses; and county and zip code based on last registered address."

So you still won't know the specific address of the offender.

Why leave that out?

Sex offenders tend to be rather unpopular – vigilantes have been known to attack registered sex offenders when their identity has become known. In fact, the ARJIS site contains this warning:

"It is illegal to use information obtained through this web site to commit a crime against a registered sex offender or to engage in discrimination or harassment against a registered sex offender. A person is authorized to use this information only to protect him/herself or a child who may be at risk."

Disturbing numbers

Once I clicked on the Accept button next to the above warning and got to the map, what I found was pretty scary. In fact, if my kids attended our local elementary school (we actually attend a school across town that meets our needs a bit better), we would pass by the homes of two registered sex offenders every morning. And all the kids in my neighborhood do so.

No wonder so many parents drive their kids to school each day.

Then again, I live in a relatively low-income neighborhood with a lot of affordable apartments. The children's mother lives in a nicer, middle-class area, and there are no registered sex offenders in her neighborhood. Zero.

Browse down the map to the El Cajon Boulevard-University Avenue corridor of Central San Diego, and you can't hardly go a block or two without a couple of sex offenders. Parts of National City, Chula Vista and El Cajon are the same, with some locations showing a stack of overlapping blue discs indicating multiple offenders living side by side.

I'm glad I don't live in those neighborhoods.

An ongoing debate

There remains disagreement over whether such information ought to be made public at all. Some argue that it's unfair to those who have served their sentences and are looking to rebuild their lives. Others point to cases of mistaken identity, such as a recent incident reported in San Diego County where a man with the same name as a registered sex offender was harassed by his neighbors – at least one of whom anonymously (and cowardly) left threatening notes.

However, I can't completely buy into the civil liberties crowd's argument that making this information public is a violation of the rights of sex offenders. You rape or molest someone, you voluntarily give up a ton of rights – and the right to remain anonymous seems to me to be among them. Don't like that rule? Don't sexually abuse or assault anyone.

Although I do realize that in many jurisdictions public nudity is still treated as a sex crime – so a dumb prank like mooning someone or even truly innocent behavior like skinny dipping can get you on these sex offender lists. Still, at least in San Diego the ARJIS map only lists serious and high risk sex offenders – those who've committed violent sexual crimes, or abused children. The skinny dippers and mooners shouldn't have to worry about being on this map or the CD-ROMs.

And while you have a right to move on after paying your debt to society, the scientific body of evidence on recidivism among sexual offenders is startlingly clear as to the future collective threat posed by these individuals.

But now that I know there are a half-dozen "serious sex offenders" in my neighborhood – according to the official ARJIS Web site – what do I do with this information? I don't know who these people are – only the general vicinity of their last reported residence.

Still, it seems to me that having as much information available as possible is the side to come down on in such disputes. The ARJIS Sex Offender Map is imperfect, but even knowing a simple number of how many registered sex offenders are nearby is better than being in the dark.

I know to not let me kids out of sight when they're with me. Sad, but at least I'll know they're safe.