High Court Frees States to Broaden Sex-Offender Warnings
By Kathleen Murphy, Staff Writer
Two U.S. Supreme Court decisions upholding the constitutionality of sex offender registries are expected to help states disseminate information about such felons.
All 50 states have laws allowing the listing of names of convicted sex offenders in an official registry, and about 386,000 offenders were listed nationwide as of February 2001, the most recent date for which complete figures are available.
California started the practice in 1947, but the modern origins of sex offender registries trace to "Megan's Law," a widely copied New Jersey statute that requires that the names and addresses of convicted sex offenders be accessible to the public.
The law is named for a Garden State seven-year old sexually assaulted and killed by a neighbor who, unknown to the girl's parents, was a convicted rapist.
The Supreme Court erased questions about the constitutionality of registries by ruling in favor of Alaska and Connecticut in cases testing their registries. The March 5 court decisions mean the registries are no longer in legal jeopardy. The rulings will permit more states to post information on the Web and include listings of sex offenders convicted before online registries were established.
Thirty-four states have put their sex-offender registries on the Internet.
Arizona Sen. Dean Martin, R-Phoenix, said he hopes the high court's rulings lead to an expansion of his state's online registry which exempts 8,500 sex offenders convicted before the law was enacted in 1996.
"The real hurdle is to try to find a place to come up with the money to do the expansion," Martin said. "We're over halfway through our legislative session here, and it may be too late to add something like this. But if I can't get it done this year, we'll do it next year."
Martin has sponsored legislation this year to extend Megan's Law notification requirements to college campuses.
The U.S. Supreme Court's action means Connecticut's registry will soon go back online. The court ruled 9 to 0 that Connecticut may publish the names, pictures and other information about convicted sex offenders on the Web without giving each offender a hearing to determine whether he or she is still dangerous.
The court also ruled 6 to 3 that Alaska's version of Megan's law doesn't create an unconstitutional extra punishment for offenders who already have served their sentences.
Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote in the Alaska decision, the laws are intended "to inform the public for its own safety, not to humiliate the offender."
Victims' rights proponents and law enforcement officials hailed the decisions, but civil liberties advocates and defense lawyers criticized the court for failing to make registries more meaningful through legal proceedings to determine an offender is a danger to society.
Lawrence Goldman, president of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, said, "The court is saying, you've done your time, you've done the punishment, you've successfully completed parole and probation, but we brand you with a stigma: sex criminal forever."
Goldman said the rulings will lead state lawmakers to expand Megan's Laws in dangerous ways.
"The court said the state legislatures can do whatever they want. They essentially said if the state does it, we're going to rubberstamp it," Goldman said.