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Being safe and fair to sex offenders

Published Sep. 4, 2005

Of course I want to know. I want to know if there's a rapist on the block, a pedophile in the neighborhood.

I can only imagine the anger and disbelief that topped the grief of Maureen Kanka when she discovered that her daughter Megan's murderer had been convicted as a sex offender. Twice. The police knew about the man across the street; the parents didn't.

Public outrage fueled Megan's laws, grim tributes to their namesake. Today, eight years after Megan's death, each state has a registry of sex offenders and provides information to the public through a 900 number or a newspaper photograph or a Web site.

I've heard civil libertarians describe these registries as the modern equivalent of a scarlet letter. I know lawyers who describe the Internet posting as "stigmatizing" people who have served their sentences. But I've often agreed with Chief Justice William Rehnquist that maybe a dangerous offender "deserves stigmatization."

As for scarlet letters, I would happily pin the P on a pedophile.

But the cases that came before the Supreme Court on Wednesday have me wondering what exactly I need to know. Less? Or more?

One case came from Alaska, where all sex offenders are required to register in person _ name, address, workplace, car tags and all _ four times a year. In Alaska, sex offenders include rapists, but they also include someone convicted of indecent exposure. They include pedophiles, but they also include 19-year-old boys who had consensual but illegal sex with 14-year-old girls.

The second case came from Connecticut. The registry there goes onto an Internet site that had 3-million visitors in the first five months _ in a state with 3.4-million people. In Connecticut, anyone who has ever been convicted of a sex offense goes up on the Web _ for life _ without a chance to prove he's no longer dangerous.

The constitutional questions hinge on whether the laws are for protection or punishment. Two Alaskans argue that they are being punished unconstitutionally under a law that didn't exist when their crimes were committed. Two Connecticut men complain that they lost their right to due process, branded for life, without a hearing.

But listening to the arguments, I wondered, what do we want to do in Megan's name?

About half the states simply dump names into the public lap, or laptop. "When you click onto a ZIP code and see the mug shots, you're not sure what you are looking at. It includes people who are dangerous and not dangerous," says Philip Tegeler of the Connecticut Civil Liberties Union.

There are 450,000 registered sex offenders in this country. Some states consign flasher and rapist to the same Internet purgatory. About 22 states treat every sex offender as someone who was, is and will be forever dangerous.

There's a widespread assumption that sex offenders are more likely to repeat their crime and are more difficult _ even impossible _ to rehabilitate. Laura Ahearn, the executive director of Parents for Megan's Law who lined up for her Supreme Court seat at 3:50 a.m. Wednesday, says that it's impossible to determine when someone won't be a recidivist: "Assessments are too fallible."

Megan's laws were passed to protect children, but some on the registry never were dangerous and some are no longer dangerous. We can give the public information, but as Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said, "It's not the whole truth. The public is getting only the bad and not the good. Its judgment is being skewed."

The laws on sex offenses are a template for the way we'll deal with other anxieties. In the aftermath of 9/11, we have also worried about the terrorist next door. In the era of high-tech surveillance and homeland security, we'll all be juggling privacy and safety.

At the same time, the Internet shrinks everyone's private terrain, not just that of the click-on ex-con. How many people who never went to the town hall have surfed onto their neighbor's real estate taxes?

We want Megan's laws to work, and they may work best in states which make distinctions between categories of sexual offenders and focus on the dangerous ones. They may work fairest in states that require hearings where people can plead that they are no longer a risk.

The court will mark a line between protection and punishment. But the rest of us want to know _ both more and less _ how to be safe and fair.

+ Ellen Goodman is a Boston Globe columnist. +

Washington Post Writers Group