Quick. Can you recite the name, address, and crimes committed by the sexual offenders on your street or in your neighborhood? Apparently many people can. During the first 96 hours after the Megan's Law database was launched on December 15, 2004, there were 14 million hits to the website, out of a total of only 35 million people in California. In fact, the site at Meganslaw.ca.gov was so clogged that many received a message, "Server busy. Try again later."
Toluca Lake has only one sexual offender registered, as does Malibu. After an extensive search, I found only one area with a better record. It is Bermuda Dunes, wherever the heck that is. Turns out it is near Palm Desert, and it reports no sexual offenders at all. The most dismal record I could find was Modesto with 513 offenders and a population of 200,000. This equals one offender for every 389 people in the area.
The "Big Brother type" database is not good news for the 63,000 offenders. The American Civil Liberties Union claims this group may become the victims of vigilante attacks, plus it is argued that many of these ex-cons committed illegal acts decades ago, purport to be reformed, thus should not be revealed at all. There is also the possibility that those listed will never find a job when the Google search engine retrieves the database in association with their names.
But what truly concerns me is never mentioned: the ramifications for non-offenders. It is not politically correct to mention anything that could detract from the noble and worthy goal of protecting children, but what if the database does not indeed defend anyone and what if it destroys the lives and livelihoods of non-offenders by its mere existence? I argue it could.
The first potential problem relates to the safety of children. Parents or guardians may embrace a false sense of security when they check to find no offender resides near their home or child's school, and as a result, may let down their guard. A full 20 percent of those listed in the database--indicated by a red check mark beside their name--have secretly moved to undisclosed locations. Plus those accurately listed have cars. They can drive to Bermuda Dunes.
Not all sex offenders have been caught; in fact, exact addresses are available only for the 33,500 who have committed the most serious crimes, and the website omits information on 22,000 other offenders convicted of less serious sex crimes. It is never entirely safe to leave a child unattended, regardless of what a database says. Complacency could prove a dangerous trend.
Secondly, the Sexual Offender Database is riddled with inaccuracies; the Attorney General's website, which hosts the list, warns about possible gaps in information and the danger of relying on names and addresses to identify people. Because so many of those registered have not reported their change of address; their new neighbors are unaware of their presence, and their old communities are stigmatized.
Kyle and Pam Brown, an East Bay couple, experienced this problem first hand. They were shocked to find their address added to the database with a detailed map to their home. They had purchased the property 11 years earlier, unaware of the previous owner's crimes. Frightened of revenge attacks and embarrassed to be linked to the offender, the Browns asked that the inaccuracy be rectified immediately. The State Department of Justice said it could not replace an old address until it received a new one from the sex offender. Only after pressure and unflattering media reports did the authorities agree to delete the address in a timely manner.
Thirdly, it may sound shallow, but the database could seriously impact real estate values and the ability to sell ones property. There are people, such as the elderly, sick, or financially strapped, who may count on their equity or need to sell in a hurry. They may encounter difficulty if Mr. Sexual Offender lives next door, across the street, behind the backyard, or even three homes away.
Because the database can be accessed by the click of a computer mouse, buyers are likely to check before making an offer, and sellers may be required by law to disclose these "unsavory" neighbors. As a result, property owners may find themselves unable to sell or forced to reduce the list price dramatically. This is especially problematic for single family residences because home buyers, who often have kids, are less likely to be nonchalant about a questionable neighbor.
Over forty percent of the offenders listed in Tarzana, Burbank and Northridge live in houses rather than apartments. Ironically, it could become commonplace to pay offenders to relocate. Why not pay a convicted felon $5000 to move to the other side of town when it will result in a $25,000 - $50,000 increase in equity? As odd as it seems, offenders could find they profit from the negative exposure on the Internet.
Lastly, there is the fear factor. Evidence suggests that offenders are more likely to re-offend under stressful conditions, such as when they are ridiculed or unable to find work. In other words, our communities and children may be in greater jeopardy when these people are publicly exposed.
Fear can also impact non-offenders directly. Talk radio callers boast about driving their children past the "dangerous" homes in their area. What is the emotional impact of this exercise on the child? On the adult?
We are arguably a fearful nation. The nightly news is replete with warnings, violence and disasters; perhaps because instilling fear heightens advertisers' sales. Perhaps because it scores high ratings for the network.
For two years, we have been treated to Homeland Security's color-coded terror alerts, though the government itself admits that "raising the threat condition has economic, physical, and psychological effects on the nation." Does this really make us more secure? Do people still notice these alerts?
It may follow that the existence of an easily accessible sexual offender database might have a similar impact on our state, raising fears, achieving little and impacting real estate values. Will we be better protected by knowing that little Suzy's house is in a red zone, little Bobby's school is in an Orange Zone and little Billy walks his dog in a Yellow Zone? I suspect not, but hope I am wrong.
Dr. Charlotte Laws is an author, the President of the League for Earth and Animal Protection and a Member of the Greater Valley Glen Council. See http://www.ValleyGlen.net