Online Sex Offender Registries Causing a Stir in California


Online sex offender registries are an interesting eGovernment application because they seem to be the focus of most of the major eGovernment issues. I've written before about transparency and sex offender registries when I was Utah's CIO.

The primary reason for eGovernment in my opinion is giving people access to the information they need to be informed participants in government, but there are other uses as well including distributing government services and simply giving the public information that they've paid for with taxes and can use in some way. Its into this latter area the sex offender registries fall. The fact that someone has been convicted of a felony is public information. People want to know about convicted sex offenders who live nearby. eGovernment fills the gap.

A Wired Magazine article says that even though California has the highest number of sex offenders in the nation (who'd have thought?) they have no online registry. The California Legislature has failed to approve one year after year. One of the reasons cited by the article for the legislative reluctance is bad data.

Like any large organization, governments suffer from data neglect. Utah has an advantage over California in having good sex offender data because we're smaller and have a single IT entity that manages data for the Dept. of Corrections. Consequently, Utah doesn't suffer from having multiple databases with incompatible schemas. Cleansing the data and keeping it accurate is a manageable problem and there's one group responsible.

On the public policy side, the ACLU is opposed to online registries for two reasons:

"We're opposed to online registries for two reasons," said Francisco Lobaco, the legislative director of the ACLU in California. "First, it heightens the risk of harassment and discrimination of those who have already served their time. Second, it fails to consider whether the individual continues to pose a risk to the public."
From Wired News: Sex Offenders Hounded by the Law
Referenced Mon May 03 2004 13:21:30 GMT-0600

This raises some interesting questions. Suppose you concur with the ACLU, does that mean that you're opposed to the information being public in general? That is, should we not make felony conviction records public? Or should we make the public, but ensure its difficult to get the information? That doesn't seem to make much sense.

The question is broader than online sex offender registries. There's lots of public data in government. Much of it hasn't been easy to get. As the Web changes that, we're going to be forced to re-evaluate what's public and what's not. I saw this come up over and over when I was CIO. I'm afraid our gut reaction will be to make things private that have traditionally been public and with that we'll lose some of what makes democracy function.