Visitors to the 1998 California state fair were treated to demonstrations of a novel criminal justice tool: a computer that allowed them to look up information about registered sex offenders.
Nearly two decades later, the novelty has vanished. A few clicks on a personal computer summon the name, address and record of sex offenders filed in the state’s Megan’s Law database. Every state in the nation now maintains a database of registered sex offenders.
And it’s not just sex offenders who find themselves listed on easy-to-access public databases. Some states have expanded the notion of public notification with databases of kidnappers or violent criminals. District attorneys across California have moved to place offenders in the public eye.
Sacramento County District Attorney Anne Marie Schubert earlier this month said she would begin posting details about some offenders who were convicted of a second felony but were granted parole, under a mandate to reduce prison overcrowding, because they have served at least half their sentence and their crime was considered nonviolent. Other California district attorneys are posting profiles of human traffickers and sexually violent predators.
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As the practice expands, civil libertarians are pushing back. Long concerned about balancing the public’s right to know against an offender’s right to move beyond their crime, they also warn of more deadly consequences.
In 2013 for example, a Sacramento Superior Court imposed a life sentence on an alleged white supremacist who killed a house guest with a rock after learning the man was listed on the Megan’s Law website.
A lawsuit filed recently in Los Angeles details vigilante citizens finding offenders on the database and assaulting them. One registered sex offender named in the lawsuit was shot twice by a home intruder. Another was assaulted with a sledgehammer and had his business lease ended after he was identified as a sex offender, according to the lawsuit. Four other registered sex offenders were killed in what the lawsuit calls a pattern of violent retribution.
“It just ruins peoples’ lives,” said Janice Bellucci, the attorney leading the lawsuit. “It makes it difficult, if not impossible, to find a job, to find housing, and there’s a lot of social stigma that goes with it as well.”
The debate has taken on new urgency for prosecutors as more California inmates are exiting prisons and returning to communities. Voters last fall liberated thousands by approving Proposition 47 to downgrade a range of former felony offenses. A federal court deemed California’s prisons unconstitutionally overcrowded, producing a state law moving lower-level offenders from prisons to jails from which many are released.
These people that went to prison earned their trip to prison.
Sacramento County District Attorney Anne Marie Schubert
“I think you’re going to see this kind of outside-the-box thinking by district attorneys across the state of California,” said San Bernardino District Attorney Mike Ramos, an ally of Schubert who is running to be California’s next attorney general. “I think when you weigh and balance the criminals’ rights vs. the rights of citizens to public safety, the rights of public safety outweigh it.”
A court order compelling California to reduce its prison population led the State Board of Parole to approve for release 1,086 nonviolent second-strike offenders as of Sept. 30. Schubert said she is preparing her community for the consequences by posting notifications about offenders for whom she believes the term “nonviolent” misleads. She notes that some of their rap sheets include crimes like voluntary manslaughter, assault with a deadly weapon and felony domestic violence.
“This is something I believe the public has a right to know,” she said. “Do I hope these people getting out are going to go and get a job and pay taxes and raise families? Absolutely. But these people that went to prison earned their trip to prison, not just for their current crime but for their entire criminal histories.”
Critics argue Schubert’s action will backfire. It’s difficult, they say, for former criminals to move on and reintegrate into society when their pasts pursue them in public.
“This list will likely make re-entry more difficult for (the) population trying to turn their lives around, which in turn is worse for public safety,” Ignacio Hernandez, legislative director for California Attorneys for Criminal Justice, said in an email. “It simply puts a target on the back of those who have served their time and are trying to successfully reintegrate.”
Schubert rejected the idea that she is applying a “scarlet letter,” arguing that information about parole releases is a matter of public record. She noted that her office posts information about other cases of interest, including those in which peace officers kill suspects, and that district attorneys wield broad discretion in which cases they choose to highlight for the public.
Multiple cities and counties moved to build on Megan’s Law by notifying residents by mail or email when a sex offender was moving nearby.
Ramos’ office posts the names and photos of sex traffickers – who are not considered sex offenders and therefore do not need to register under Megan’s Law – as part of its “Stop the John” initiative. The goal is not so much to inform the public about who walks among them as it is to shame criminals. Only convicted offenders have their information go up, and it is taken down a year after their conviction.
“We’re doing a better job of suppression and holding the traffickers responsible for their conduct,” Ramos said. “It’s an approach that I truly believe in if we want to deter this kind of conduct and prevent more victims.”
Every state has some form of the Megan’s Law database, which emerged in response to a federal law. But there’s wide variance in other types of public registries of other criminals, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
▪ Nine states maintain lists of registered violent offenders.
▪ Three states require public registries of arsonists.
▪ Seven states track methamphetamine-related convictions.
▪ Three states demand that kidnappers register.
The common thread for those crimes is the belief that past offenders continue to pose a risk. The more average citizens know, the more they will be shielded from repeat offenses.
I don’t really understand what the purpose of it is except to promote unrest and possible retribution.
Don Specter, of the Prison Law Office
But Bellucci’s organization, California Reform Sex Offender Laws, sued the state for not including conviction and release dates on all profiles in the Megan’s Law database. Leaving that information out obscures the fact that some registered offenders were prosecuted years ago and haven’t offended since, the lawsuit argues, with potentially deadly consequences.
The omissions “evince callous disregard and indifference for the rights and safety of individuals already punished and publicly shamed for their crimes,” the complaint argues.
Schubert is not releasing the whereabouts of released second-strikers, so such scenarios are less likely. But some attorneys and criminal justice advocates still question what she hopes to accomplish.
“I don’t really understand what the purpose of it is except to promote unrest and possible retribution,” said Don Specter of the Prison Law Office, which has sued California over prison overcrowding. “It just strikes me as a political stunt.”
Whether it’s sex offenders, second-strikers or human traffickers, Schubert said, that tension between individual and collective rights will always exist. She has no reservations about where she falls.
“You could make an argument on any of these you’re hurting the person,” Schubert said. “I’m not doing this to hurt the person. I’m doing this to inform the public.”