Editorials

Thursday, Feb 09 2006 04:07 PM

List sexual predators

By The Bakersfield Californian

Why not now? Start posting the names of high-risk sex offenders on the Kern County sheriff's Web page. Other California cities and counties have done it. More are thinking about it.

Forget the bickering, bizarre Legislature. Lawmakers will likely never or at least not in our lifetime agree to do the right thing.

Sheriff Mack Wimbish suggested last week that he is considering making the sexual predator list more accessible to the public.

"If they fail to get this passed again, I plan on putting high-risk offenders on my Web site," Wimbish told reporters.

Last week, the Assembly overwhelmingly approved a compromise bill by Assemblywoman Nicole Parra, D-Hanford, to place the names and home addresses of high-risk and serious offenders on the Internet. The bill now goes to the more liberal Senate, where other similar bills have died.

Californians now can access the list only by going to a police or sheriff's station. Some local rules require people to register and undergo background checks before they can view the list. Some jurisdictions limit the time people can spend viewing the list.

People determined to navigate these restrictions find only offenders' names and their zip codes hardly sufficient information to determine if dangerous people live nearby.

To add insult to this insulting arrangement, the list is filled with errors. An audit last year revealed the locations of about 30,000 people on a list of about 100,000 convicted sex offenders were unknown.

The limited information, errors and hurdles placed in the public's way have prompted impassioned calls for reform.

But upgrading the list has become a political football, with liberals and civil libertarians claiming identification violates privacy rights and exposes people to harassment. "Rehabilitated" predators cannot live in peace. Others say the list is a vital tool for parents to keep their children and neighborhoods safe.

Consider Benjamin Sam, 55, who was featured in a recent San Jose Mercury Newsinvestigative series. While Sam argued he just wanted to "fade away" after doing his time, the newspaper discovered Sam rents a room in a San Jose home where a mother and her 20-year-old daughter and her family live. They did not know Sam is a twice-convicted rapist.

If Megan's list is posted on the Internet, the backgrounds of potential renters, employees, volunteers, neighbors, etc., can easily be checked. Few people now are willing to maneuver the maze of rules to use the system.

California was the first state to start registering sex offenders as a law enforcement tool in 1947. But the state has been slow to embrace Megan's Law, which became a nationwide congressional mandate in 1996. The law is named after a New Jersey girl who was raped and killed by a convicted child molester who lived across the street. Megan's Law requires the public to be notified of sex offenders who are deemed a risk to the public.

Forty-one states publish the sex offender list on the Internet. California doesn't.

Thirty-five states provide addresses many include details, such as places of employment and license-plate numbers. California doesn't.

The error rate mistakes on the listing in most states is about 5 percent. California's is 25 percent.

The shortcomings in California's Megan's Law go on and on. Politics is to blame. And with leaders in the state Senate, such as Democrat John Burton of San Francisco, it is unlikely public access and information will improve.

Sheriff Wimbish is headed in the right direction. But he should begin posting the names and addresses of high-risk sex offenders sooner than later.

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