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Should public get open access to private details of sex offenders?

RICHARD BLACKWELL, The Globe & Mail, 18 April 2006

The shooting of two men who were listed on a sex offender registry in the United States underlines the hazards of giving the public open access to the kind of information that is carefully kept secret in Canada.

While the details of the Maine killings are sketchy, the names and addresses of the slain men -- Joseph Gray and William Elliott -- were readily available to anyone who wanted to connect to Maine's Internet registry.

Yesterday, the two men's personal details were still posted on the website, along with those of 
hundreds of other offenders.

That is common practice in the United States, where all states are required to register sex offenders, and many allow access to information that includes names, criminal record details and sometimes individual street addresses. The U.S. Department of Justice website even provides search tools to help the public glean information from individual state databases.

It's all designed to protect people from dangerous offenders, U.S. officials say. 

"The silent sex offender can be just as dangerous as notorious neighbourhood gang members, and because of this we must keep parents and communities informed and engaged," U.S. Attorney-General Alberto Gonzales says in a message on the Justice Department website.

It's also part of the preference for punitive penalties in the United States, said Alan Young, a law 
professor at Toronto's York University. 

"They're very much into shaming sanctions," he said. 

In Canada, by contrast, sex offender registries have been designed as investigative tools for use by the police, but are not open to the public.

The first registry in Canada was established in Ontario in 2001. It requires sex offenders to register
with the local police within 15 days of being released from jail and to keep the police informed if they move.

The database of more than 8,000 names is used by police to monitor offenders and is analyzed when a crime is committed in a particular neighbourhood. But the information is closely guarded and unavailable outside police circles.

In 2004, a similar federal registry was established by the RCMP. For the national registry, however, a judge must order the offender's name on the list. That difference prompted the Ontario government to keep its registry up and running, even as the information in it is merged with the national list.

There has been some pressure to open up the Canadian lists to public scrutiny. Ontario MPP Gerry Martiniuk recently introduced a private member's bill in the legislature to grant public access to his province's registry.

Mr. Martiniuk also wants sex offenders who were convicted in other countries to be added to the 
provincial registry.

Still, many observers say the Canadian model is superior to the U.S. one and less likely to produce dramatic vigilante acts. A sex offender registry is most effective as a law-enforcement tool, not as a means for people to check up on their neighbours, said Steve Sullivan, president of the Canadian Resource Centre for Victims of Crime.

After examining U.S. models, 

"there really wasn't anything I saw that suggested making the registries public made them more effective."

Ontario has a high rate of registration among sex offenders, partly because they know the data will not be released, Mr. Sullivan said.

He noted that police do sometimes issue public warnings about individual sex offenders. These 
"targeted warnings" are more effective than saying, 

"Here's a list of 500 guys who live in your city who might be a risk to you," he said.

Steve Gehl, a lawyer in Waterloo, Ont., says opening up the databases for public scrutiny would be a big mistake, and not just because it is an invasion of privacy.

Mr. Gehl said the key problem is that publicizing the names and addresses of sex offenders would drive many of them into hiding.

"By putting their picture and everything else on a public website, you effectively force them underground," he said. 

Mr. Gehl is challenging the constitutionality of the Ontario registry, arguing that it is unconstitutional to force every sex offender to register.

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