New UF Study Ranks States’ Access To Sex Offender Information

Published: November 12th, 2002

Category: Research

GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Arguments scheduled Wednesday before the U.S. Supreme Court in cases that challenge how Alaska and Connecticut post sex offender information on the Internet might eventually determine public access to similar information in most states, according to new findings compiled by University of Florida researchers.

The survey results, released this week from the Marion Brechner Center Citizen Access Project at UF’s College of Journalism and Communications, show Wisconsin, Tennessee, Florida and Virginia require the most information about sex offenders available to their residents through the Internet, according to the project’s panel of experts. Those states received a “6” on a scale of 1 to 7 for records access.

States that make the least amount of sex offender information available on the Internet, according to the ratings, are Vermont, California, Hawaii, Louisiana, Maine, Massachusetts, Missouri, Nebraska, and New Hampshire. Those states received a “2” on the CAP Sunshine Index.

The U.S. Supreme Court hears oral arguments on Wednesday in the two so-called “Megan’s Laws” cases, Connecticut Department of Public Safety v. Doe, 01-1231 and Smith v. Doe, 01-729. The Supreme Court agreed to hear an appeal of the Alaska law in February and the Connecticut appeal in May.

Megan’s Laws require sexual offender registration and community notification after sexual offenders are released into the community. The laws honor Megan Kanka, a 7-year-old girl who was raped and murdered in New Jersey. Megan’s parents were not aware that their neighbor was a twice-convicted sex offender until he was charged with the crimes. Although 50 states have Megan’s Laws, only 37 have laws directly requiring or authorizing Internet distribution of some of that information.

“The cases involving laws mandating Internet posting of sex offender information point out the tension between the ‘public’s right to know’ and the dangers of releasing personal information,” said Bill Chamberlin, a communications law expert and director of the university’s Marion Brechner Center Citizen Access Project. “Megan’s Laws cases show that privacy interests compete with family safety as much, if not more than, any inherent rights for the media to use such information. The question is ‘How do you protect children without permanently punishing individuals who already have served their prison time for the crimes they committed?’”

The Citizen Access Project found 21 states and the District of Columbia require at least some information about previous sex offenders be posted on the Internet, while another 16 state laws authorize, but do not require, Internet postings. States vary widely in how much is required or authorized to be posted. The project, which aims to increase public awareness about access to government information, rated each of the states’ laws.

“These are not ratings about whether laws are good or bad,” said Chamberlin, an eminent scholar of mass communications in UF’s College of Journalism and Communications. “It would be hard to get a meaningful consensus from a variety of people of what constituted a good law. We are comfortable saying our panel of experts can determine whether one law provides more access to sex offender information than another law,”

The Alaska law allows state officials to post on the Internet sex offender information including name, address and information about the conviction. The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals held that posting publicly available sex offender registries, which include names of people who served their sentences before the law was enacted, meant that some sex offenders were being unconstitutionally punished by a law that was passed after their conviction. The Citizens Access Project found that the disputed Alaska law scored “4” on a scale of 1 to 7 for openness.

In the Connecticut case, a federal judge struck down that state’s sex-offender registry last year, including a requirement that the information be posted on the Internet. The judge found the law violated the constitutional rights of past offenders, because their names were placed on the list without a chance to prove they are no longer dangerous to society. Attorneys for the sex offenders argued that states needed a process to determine the risk level of offenders before placing their names on the Internet. The New York-based 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals agreed, and the registry is no longer publicly available. The Connecticut law scored a “5” on the project’s openness scale.

Along with the laws in Alaska and Connecticut, a law in Utah also was challenged. In that case, the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, based in Denver, upheld Utah’s statute, saying it did not amount to double punishment for the same crime. State courts in Indiana and Delaware have upheld similar laws, while a New Jersey court blocked posting the information on the Internet.

The Marion Brechner Citizen Access Project allows citizens and public officials to better understand and evaluate citizen access to local and state government in all 50 states. The project is building a database of open meetings and open records law summaries from the 50 states and the District of Columbia. It ranks state laws and then puts the comparisons on the Internet, with appropriate summaries and citations.

Members of the project’s advisory board include: Rebecca Daugherty, FOI Service Center, Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press; Sandy Davidson, associate professor, University of Missouri-Columbia, School of Journalism; Bob J. Freeman, executive director New York State Committee on Open Government; Harry Hammitt, editor/publisher, Access Reports; Frosty Landon, executive director Virginia Coalition for Open Government; Ian Marquand, special projects coordinator KPAX TV and Society of Professional Journalists Freedom of Information Committee chair; Linda Lightfoot, executive editor , The (Baton Rouge, La.) Advocate; Kevin Goldberg, Associate, Cohn and Marks; Anne Mullin O’Connor, Indiana State Public Access Counselor; John J. Watkins, professor, University of Arkansas, School of Law; Patrice McDermott, assistant director, Office of Government Relations American Library Association.

Credits

Source
Bill Chamberlin, bchamber@jou.ufl.edu, 352-392-2273
Source
Tennessee Sex Offender Registry
Source
Virginia Sex Offender and Crimes Against Minors Registry

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