April 6 2011 10:16 AM

Critics say sex-offender alert system will do more harm than good

Nathan Fletcher
Photo by David Rolland

The California Public Defenders Association (CPDA) says a proposed law that would allow people to be notified, via email, every time a registered sex offender moves into their neighborhood “will breed hysteria and vigilantism” and create a false sense of security.

“The vast majority of sex crimes are committed by someone who is not on the Sex Offender Registry,” CDPA argued in its opposition to the bill, AB 1022, that’s scheduled for its first committee hearing next week.

Authored by Assemblymember Nathan Fletcher, whose district includes portions of northern San Diego, Poway and Escondido, the bill would amend current state law that says only the California Department of Justice can notify the public of a sex offender’s residence, via the Megan’s Law website. Local law enforcement can notify the community of a person’s address only if that person’s deemed a public-safety threat or there’s a warrant out for his arrest.

Last May, San Diego County Supervisor Bill horn proposed a countywide email-notification system after Chelsea King and Amber Dubois were murdered by John Gardner, a registered sex offender.

“Sexual predators lurk in the shadows of every community,” horn wrote on his blog. “An alert system will keep a light of vigilance on their movements.”

Jay Adams, spokesperson for the California Coalition on Sexual Offending, echoed CPDA’s concerns, saying that such an alert system could end up driving sex offenders underground, where they can’t be tracked by law enforcement.

“I don’t think there is one shred of evidence to show that this type of notification has ever really resulted in stopping crimes,” she said, “and there’s plenty of evidence to show that it encourages vigilantism.”

At a press conference last month to announce the legislation, San Diego County Sheriff Bill Gore described AB 1022 as “good public policy” and the “logical progression” of the Megan’s Law database. Fletcher echoed this in an emailed statement to CityBeat after we asked for a comment on CPDA’s opposition.

“AB 1022 brings Megan’s Law into the 21st century to better disseminate already available public information on sex offenders,” Fletcher said. “Allowing people to voluntarily sign up to receive information in a more efficient way just makes sense.”

But, as Adams pointed out, the Megan’s Law web-site—and any email-notification system tied to it—doesn’t give people much information about offenders. It doesn’t say, for instance when a person committed his crime, if he successfully completed parole or whether he’s committed subsequent offenses. Adams, a psychologist who works with sex offenders, said one of her clients was murdered after a neighbor saw him on the Megan’s Law website and wrongly assumed he was a child molester.

“My client was 68 years old. He posed no threat to anybody,” she said. “The public is simply not in a position to make determinations about who’s dangerous.”