Public safety wins against offender's privacy rights

The public's safety weighed against personal privacy - in Nevada and California sex offenders are finding that the public wins out again and again. But the laws and systems governing the public's right to know about offenders in their own neighborhoods are quite different.

There are about 40 sex offenders living in South Lake Tahoe, according to South Lake Tahoe Police. It is twice the number of those registered with the Douglas County Sheriff's Department, which stands at 21.

When "Megan's Law" first passed, California residents were bombarded with information about sex offenders. Some newspapers even went so far as to publish lists of offenders and their photos. And despite laws stating the information could not be used for the purpose of retaliation or discrimination, sex offenders became targets of community harassment.

California residents, who are not sex offenders themselves, can go into their local law enforcement agency and find out about any offender living in their town and what sexual crimes they have committed. California law even permits law enforcement agencies to give out the offender's address, although it is South Lake Tahoe Police Department's policy not to.

"We will give the general area they live in, but we won't give addresses," said Officer Debbie Salsbury. "That is our departmental policy. We don't want people harassing the offenders. Nobody likes the thought of living next to a sex offender, but they have to live somewhere."

In Nevada any citizen can call the state central repository and for an $8 fee search for individuals by name, social security number, address, or vehicle license number. The state will provide the person's crime, the location and date of conviction. For residents looking for more general information about their own community they must look to their local law enforcement agency. And under Nevada law, agencies are given broad discretion in the matter and method they use to notify the community.

Unlike California where the whole sex offender registry is open, Nevada citizens who don't have more specific information can only find out about those sex offenders who are classified as Tier 3, or at high risk to commit another sex crime. Information on Tier 2, or offenders determined to be a moderate risk, is available to organizations that "care for or otherwise provide programs for children or women and which are reasonably likely to encounter the offender."

A prison mental health director with a psychiatrist or psychologist determines an offender's tier by using a risk assessment formula. Factors include conditions of parole, criminal history, physical conditions of the offender like advanced age or physical disability, and an offender's response to treatment.

Douglas County Sheriff's Lt. Kathleen Tadich had her first experience with a Tier 3 offender in September.

"Because the guidelines are not exact I reviewed it with the sheriff and the staff. We determined that we would do community notification up to publishing it in the local newspapers," Tadich said.

The Center for Sex Offender Management commissioned a research group to explore the thinking of people in Vermont regarding sex offenders and community notification. Doble Research, a New Jersey firm that conducts public opinion surveys, held four focus groups meetings. In open-ended, two hour-long conversations the people had a chance to voice their opinions as they learned more about the issue.

"We found there were a lot of misconceptions about sex offenders," said John Doble. "There was the belief that all were predators when actually most sex offenders are involved with family members. People wanted to know where they could get information and they wanted the ability to follow up and ask questions. Many expressed spontaneous concern about the civil rights of sex offenders in the community. They were concerned about the public overreacting."

According to the research results, the majority of the people asked favored low-key community notification that didn't involve the newspaper, posters, or yard signs.

"There were times with the most serious offenders that they thought it might be appropriate to publish the people's names and photos," Doble added. "They wanted the immediate neighborhood to be informed, possibly by going door-to-door. They were sensitive to reintegration issues and not exacerbating the chances that an offender would reoffend. However when it came to a predator they really wanted to go all out with notification."


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