Not Just for Sex Offenders: Some Want Registries for Other Felons

While the U.S. Supreme Court considers the constitutionality of "Megan's Law" sex offender registries, some people say that the felony databases don't go far enough. Why, they ask, shouldn't local communities list the names of other ex-convicts in the neighborhood?

"I think a community has as much right to know that a murderer is living next to them as a sex offender," said Dianne Clements, president of the Texas-based Justice For All, a nonprofit, volunteer group that advocates change in the criminal justice system to protect everyday citizens.

Sex offenders aren't the only ones who repeat their crimes after leaving jail, Clements said. Other felons, such as those convicted of aggravated assault, are often repeat offenders, and it's even more important to get information about them out to the community, she said. 

Clements said citizens should have easy access, including by way of the Internet, to such public information.

"Why do we, all of a sudden, when public information truly becomes public, there's all sort of pandering and fretting over it," Clements said. "These individuals are convicted of certain crimes they've committed, and people should know."

States are increasingly putting more information online. Everything from court records to tax information to criminal statistics about certain regions is now on the Web for all to see.

Some groups agree that more information about what goes on in the nation's courts and information about other felons should be made available online, but there still needs to be some ground rules as to just how much information is too much for the greater good.

"We do think there should be more information about individuals online, but let's make sure it's not something that's going to come back to haunt us down the road," said Ari Schwartz, associate director of the Washington-based Center for Democracy and Technology. "Let's do this in a concerted yet thoughtful way."

But others say that it's the heinous nature of sex crimes that makes the sex offender registries, set up under what is known as Megan's Law, so important to the community, and that there's no need for registries for other felons.

"We believe it should just be on those individuals who commit sex crimes against children and sexually violent sex crimes against adults" on the registries, said Laura Ahearn, executive director of the New York-based Parents for Megan's Law.

Ahearn noted that many criminal records are already available to the public through the Freedom of Information Act. Also, she said, many sex offenders spend little to no time in jail and, more than any other criminals, become repeat offenders once they get out of prison.

"Our feeling is that sex offender registration is [an] absolute necessity because of the devastating impact that a sex crime has on an individual — it's lifelong," Ahearn said.

Jacob Sullum, senior editor of Reason magazine, advocates expanded felon registries, but said the current registries need some fixing.

"I think these laws don't do a very good job of focusing on the people who represent the most serious threats," Sullum told Fox News.

He argued that many felons included in these databases are not going to commit new sex offenses after they've been released. On the other hand, he said, there are many criminals out there who, when released from prison, present a clearer and more present danger to society and are not required by law to make their whereabouts known.

"I don't object to the idea of registration in principle," he said. "I just think there needs to be more distinction between different kinds of offenders."

It's this argument, in part, that has landed Connecticut's sex offender registry in the nation's highest court.

Justices will decide if states that have online registries must hold separate hearings to determine whether a convicted offender still poses a threat after he does jail time in Connecticut Department of Public Safety v. John Doe. Some state registries have come under fire for not providing a way for felons to get off the lists.

States with laws similar to Connecticut's are Alabama, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Louisiana, Maryland, Michigan, Mississippi, Missouri, New Mexico, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Virginia, West Virginia and Wisconsin.

Meanwhile, Alaska's registry is being challenged in the Supreme Court. That case, Otte v. Doe, is based on whether personal information about convicted offenders that's published on the Internet even after the felon does his time amounts to unconstitutional retroactive punishment. Lawyers for the felons argued that they are stigmatized when they try to get a fresh start.

Megan's Law is named in memory of Megan Kanka, a New Jersey girl raped and killed in 1994 by a neighbor who was a convicted sex offender. Local versions of the law usually require convicted rapists and pedophiles to keep police informed of where they live and work, and to supply updated photos of themselves when they get out of prison. The data is then made available to the public via the Internet in 30 states.

Another federal law took effect last month that requires states to notify the public about sex offenders enrolled or working at college campuses.

More than half the states try to limit the law to those who seem to be the most dangerous, but the rest do not — instead listing all offenders convicted of specified categories of crimes.