By: Graham Webster
The Mobile (Ala.) Register on Sunday started an effort aimed at closing the so-called “digital divide” — the division between people with and without Internet access — in at least one way: They’re printing names, addresses, and photos of local convicted sex offenders.
Alabama law requires convicted sex offenders to register with the county, in turn requiring the county to make the information public. All 50 states require such registration, and 41 post the information online, E&P reported last year.
For nearly a decade, the Alabama state government has published the names and addresses of sex offenders on its Web site, the Register reported. But Michael Marshall, the paper’s editor, said that might not be sufficient.
“We live in one of the least wired states in the union,” Marshall noted. “When you consider that lawmakers, both at the federal and a state level have decided that citizens should have the benefit of this information — that’s why they created the Web registries — why should only those who happen to have access to the Internet have access to that information?”
About a year ago, the Register’s publisher, Howard Bronson, suggested that the paper consider printing the information. After several busy months at the paper — Iraq and tornado coverage kept the newsroom busy — Marshall told E&P he finally had time to go forward.
The paper ran a front-page story Sunday discussing the issue, and the photos ran on B2, the second page of the Register’s “Metro” section. The front of the paper’s “Insight” section featured a column in which Marshall answered anticipated questions from readers.
“We are not publishing these photos and addresses to further punish the offenders. Our intent is to provide a public service that will allow our readers to better protect themselves and their families,” Marshall wrote in the paper’s hypothetical Q&A.
With data downloaded straight from the government database, the paper will run the mug shots, names, and addresses of registered offenders over three Sundays. The Register will run local information in its Baldwin edition.
When other papers have decided whether or not to publish information about sex offenders before, concerns about the safety of offenders have emerged. In at least one case, in 2003, a New Hampshire man allegedly stabbed one registered sex offender and set fire to the homes of several others. Police found a list of registrants in his home, and even though he had not gotten the list from a newspaper, the incident called attention to the potential for vigilantes.
Ultimately, several other papers have gone ahead with similar ideas, varying from front-page stories to less-obvious listings in classified pages. The Boston Herald even went so far as track down and expose a number of unregistered sex offenders, in some cases photographing them outside of their homes. The Star Press in Muncie, Ind., published local offenders’ photos on Page One in February of 2004. And in Texas, a state law requires county sheriffs to pay for notices with photos of new registrants in area papers.
In a story last year, E&P reported that some critics cite studies indicating that some sex offenders are more likely to repeat their crimes if their past is made public.
Marshall addressed that concern in his Sunday column: “As law enforcement agencies point out on the registry Web sites, these sex offenders are also protected by law, and anyone who is caught attempting to harm them will be prosecuted,” he wrote.
He also considered omitting house numbers in favor of more general location information, which would have made it harder for the public to track down registered individuals.
Marshall has also vowed to quickly remedy any errors that might incorrectly label residents as sex offenders, a problem that several papers have encountered in the past. “We have checked to make certain that the information we are publishing accurately reflects law enforcement’s registries,” Marshall wrote to readers. “If the registries themselves contain inaccuracies, then it is good that they be brought to light by publication in the newspaper. If there are errors, we will tell you about them on the front page of the newspaper, where all of our corrections appear.”
The Journal Star in Peoria, Ill., and the Des Moines (Iowa) Register are among several papers that have stopped running the information after finding that too much of their local information is incorrect.
Depending on community reaction, which Marshall says has been predominantly positive, the Register may continue to publish the list from time to time. “Certainly we don’t want anybody to retaliate to these people, but if you just do a street, you tar a whole street,” he said.
“My guess is there will be [subsequent listings],” Marshall added. “I don’t want to commit to that, because of course I want to measure the effect it has on our community.”