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The risk of registries 

The Globe & Mail, 19 April 200

Sex offender registries were introduced in the United States to protect victims from predators. Instead, they have succeeded in turning predators into victims. The most recent example is the murder of two sex offenders in Maine this week. Stephen Marshall, a 20-year-old dishwasher from North Sydney, N.S., is accused of killing Joseph Gray, 57, and William Elliott, 24. In Maine to visit his father, Mr. Marshall stole his rifle, a .45-calibre handgun and pickup truck and tracked down and shot Mr. Elliott and Mr. Gray at their homes in towns in Maine about 40 kilometers apart.

He then killed himself on a bus in Boston Sunday night as police pursued him, so his connection to his victims will never be known. What is known is that Mr. Marshall found his victims' names, addresses and photographs on Maine's sex offender registry. 

Anyone can access the free on-line database, and learn that Mr. Gray was sentenced to four to six years in prison for raping and assaulting a child in Massachusetts in 1992, and that Mr. Elliott was sentenced to four months in prison in 2002 for having sex with a minor. At the time, he was 20 and she was two weeks shy of her 16th birthday. Mr. Elliott was ordered to register as a sex offender for 10 years. Now Mr. Elliott's father is considering a lawsuit against the state government for publicizing his son's conviction record. 

In light of the U.S. experience, Canada should resist calls to open up sex offender registries to the 
public. As abhorrent as the crimes of pedophiles are -- and there is nothing more odious than sex 
crimes against innocent children -- little is gained by making predators' photographs and current 
addresses available to all. What is more, such registries fly in the face of fundamental justice. If
these individuals are a threat, then they should be kept behind bars. If the justice system decides they are not, then making their criminal history public serves only to hinder their reintegration into society -- and incite acts of vigilante justice. 

Last year in Bellingham, Wash., a man killed two known sex offenders after looking them up on a sex offender registry. 
In 2004, in New Hampshire, a man pleaded guilty to attempting to murder two sex offenders whose addresses had been posted on the Internet.

Unlike the United States, where almost all states have publicly available sex offender registries, Canada has correctly reserved such databases as investigative tools for use only by police. Ontario established the first one in 2001. It requires all sex offenders to register with local police within 15 days of being released from jail. The RCMP-managed National Sex Offender Registry was introduced in 2004. A judge must order the offender's name, address, offence, alias, identifying marks and tattoos to be entered in the database. 

Cambridge, Ont., MPP Gerry Martiniuk recently introduced a private member's bill to allow public access to Ontario's registry. He argues it would give parents peace of mind to know whether there are offenders living in their neighbourhoods. However, knowing a pedophile lives nearby will not prevent him from re-offending. Instead, public registries may serve only to drive pedophiles into the shadows, which is about the last place they ought to be lurking.

The Ontario registry has a high rate of registration among sex offenders, precisely because they know the data will not be released. Police have the discretion to issue public warnings about individual sex offenders, and that is where the authority should remain. It should not be left to the likes of Stephen Marshall to decide who is a threat to the community and who is not.

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