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Bill would place sex offenders on the Net; Some critics worry over potential for harassment


Efforts to advertise the whereabouts of convicted sex offenders would expand onto the Internet in Maryland under legislation being considered in the General Assembly.

One of the bills debated at a Senate hearing yesterday would require state officials to build a Web site that would allow easy access to Maryland's registry of approximately 500 rapists, child molesters and violent sexual predators.

The proposal would add Maryland to 12 states that post the names and addresses of such offenders on the Internet. Supporters say the measure, which would cost about $200,000 to implement, may be the simplest way for residents to identify the risks in their neighborhoods.

"I think this is information any parent would want to have," said Sen. Timothy R. Ferguson, a Carroll County Republican and chief sponsor of the legislation. "And the computer has offered us a great tool to bring it to them."

But others cautioned that sending such details as a sex offender's address out to a vast Internet audience could have unintended consequences.

"I understand the community fears about sex offenders," said Suzanne Smith, legislative director of the American Civil Liberties Union's Maryland branch. "But sending these names out so far and wide raises some serious concerns."

Smith laid out some of those worries in an interview as she prepared to address senators at the hearing on the Internet bill.

There is the potential, she said, for vigilantes to harass innocent family members of an offender or others who may share the felon's address. She also cited the possibility that inaccurate information could get out on the Web.

Even if the listings are correct, she said, such wide advertisement of the information could eliminate chances for a sex offender to find work after release from prison.

While the bill is considered likely to advance from committee to the Senate floor, Ferguson said he believes those objections could hurt the measure's chances.

"If we can't address some of those questions, the bill will definitely be in trouble," he said.

Similar hurdles face the array of other measures being considered by lawmakers this session, all aimed at expanding the audience for the sex offender registry.

The bills are offspring of a 1996 federal law -- popularly known as "Megan's Law" -- requiring states to keep track of convicted sex offenders and, in certain circumstances, notify communities when offenders move in. It stemmed from the 1994 rape and murder of Megan Kanka in New Jersey by a convicted child molester.

The new Maryland proposals include one that would require some offenders who committed crimes prior to 1995 to join the registry.

Pub Date: 2/17/99

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