For the past two decades, Ohio has acted to streamline and toughen its online registry of all sex offenders living in our midst. Today, detailed information about 18,000 such offenders, including about 500 in the Mahoning Valley, are but a click away for millions of Ohioans from their nearest PC, laptop or smartphone.
In 1997, Gov. George Voinovich signed the Sexual Offender Registration Bill, which required sheriff’s offices throughout the state to develop and implement a registration system for convicted sexual offenders. Over the years, through state initiative or federal fiat, that registry has been upgraded and made increasingly more user friendly.
The most recent upgrade to better serve Ohioans rightly concerned about convicted rapists, child molesters or other sexual deviants living in their neighborhoods debuted this month. At a press conference last week with representatives of the Buckeye State Sheriffs Association, Attorney General Mike DeWine announced that Ohioans now can use phone numbers, email addresses or screen names to learn whether they belong to registered sex offenders. The database’s new reverse-lookup feature lets people input that data to determine whether a registered sex offender has contacted them.
“In this age of technology, knowing which sex offenders live in your neighborhood isn’t always enough,” DeWine said. “Digital communications allow people to break geographical boundaries, and sexual predators can use this to their advantage to pose as peers and develop cyber friendships with unsuspecting children.”
The upgrade in the public website comes none too soon as the wide use of electronic technology in planning and perpetrating sexual crimes, particularly those against children, makes readily apparent. In 82 percent of online sex crimes against minors, the offender used the victim’s social networking site to gain needed information, according to a study in The Journal of Adolescent Health. The FBI estimates that 50,000 child predators are online at any given time trolling for potential victims.
OPPOSITION TO REGISTRIES
Despite the widening scope of the threats and despite the lifelong emotional and interpersonal scars that sexual abuse inflicts on victims, the American Civil Liberties Union and others demonize the online registries as patently unfair to offenders. Many liken the impact of the long-lasting listings on convicted offenders to the shameful Scarlet Letter “A” prominently worn by Hester Prynne in Nathanial Hawthorn’s classic 1850 novel, branding her as an adulteress.
But arguments that sexual-offender registries unfairly stigmatize individuals who have paid their time for their committed crime pale in comparison to the benefits of such registries, which have been upheld by state and federal courts.
First, online registries provide a strong measure of accountability to the ex-cons. Because they are legally required to submit updated information of their whereabouts and forced to deal with their public record in other aspects of their lives, registries provide incentives for them not to reoffend. Second, registries provide a measure of comfort and security to residents, particularly parents, to know whether sex offenders live nearby. Furthermore, the former offenders are themselves protected by criminal penalties for those who would harass, assault or commit crimes against them.
On balance, the registry serves as one important tool to fight the scourge of sex abuse. But Ohioans must recognize it cannot be the only tool. Given that most sexual assaults are committed by family members or trusted friends and that many go unreported, such databases cannot replace close supervision by parents and proactive defensive behavior by everyone in all interactions — online and off.