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Exposing predators [Editorial]

Sexual AssaultSafety of CitizensGovernment

Victims advocates are expressing dismay over a decision this week by Maryland's highest court that could lead to the removal of hundreds of names from a list of registered sex offenders in the state. The advocates say removing names from the registry could put women and children at greater risk by leaving families less able to identify potential predators in their midst. But critics of the list argue there's no evidence it has resulted in fewer sexual assaults or deterred offenders from committing such crimes.

On Monday, the Maryland Court of Appeals issued a narrow judgment that didn't settle those larger questions but instead attempted to balance the state's interest in maintaining public safety against the rights of offenders who have paid their debt to society. It ruled that adding the names of people whose crimes were committed before the registry was created in 1995 violated the state constitution, a decision that could lead to as many as 1,800 registered sex offenders having their names expunged from the rolls.

Whether that will make society less safe remains unclear, but the issue of offender registries has been the subject of a lively debate in recent decades. Even supporters of the registry concede that it has been of only limited effectiveness in preventing sexual assaults or protecting future crime victims while critics of such lists point out they can actually be counterproductive if they push ex-offenders further into the shadows and marginalize an already stigmatized group.

When the state legislature created Maryland's sex offender registry two decades ago, lawmakers clearly intended it to be a preventive tool people could use to avoid known sex offenders in their neighborhood or workplace who might threaten their safety or that of family members. It was not conceived primarily as a punitive measure aimed at ostracizing and isolating a particularly despised class of criminals. Yet that is what it has become almost by default since there is little aside from anecdotal evidence that it has actually made society safer.

That's in part because the sex offenses remain one of the most underreported types of crime. The vast majority of sex offenders are never arrested or convicted, and 95 percent of such crimes are committed by people who have no prior history of sex offenses and who do not appear on any public registry or list. Moreover, since most sex crimes, especially those committed against children, are carried out by people known to their victims, reliance on published lists to spot predators can easily mislead families into a false sense of security.

None of this is to downplay the very real threats that sex offenders pose to vulnerable youngsters and adults or the important role state registries can play in making people more aware of potential dangers. There's undoubtedly some benefit in parents knowing whether a neighbor or acquaintance has a history of rapes or sexual assaults so they can at least be on their guard, and sex crime victims often are more motivated to go through the emotional stress of cooperating with law enforcement to prosecute such cases when they believe their community will be safer if the perpetrator is publicly exposed.

The limited body of evidence regarding the extent to which state sex offender registries truly reduce the incidence of such crimes, however, suggests the state also needs to adopt additional strategies aimed at prevention and deterrence. Outreach and education efforts such as the Green Dot program found on some Maryland college campuses train students to intervene or create a distraction in situations where female classmates may be a risk for sexual harassment or violence. Other programs are directed at middle and high school students.

Devoting resources to these kinds of initiatives, plus more support services for survivors of sexual assault and better training for the prosecutors who handle such cases, will help create safer communities and together produce far more tangible results than relying on the sex offender registry alone. That doesn't mean Maryland's registry should be eliminated, but it does mean we must recognize its limitations as a preventive measure and work to integrate it into a broader public safety effort that will ensure the cost of maintaining it is justified.

To respond to this editorial, send an email to talkback@baltimoresun.com. Please include your name and contact information.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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