Cyberspace is latest frontier for sex offender registration

Dean's shoes
"Dean" is a sex offender who has gone through a treatment program in hopes of re-entering society.
MPR file photo/Sea Stachura

(AP) - Sex offenders already have to tell Minnesota authorities where they live, work, attend school and vacation. Soon, they might also have to provide their e-mail addresses.

With children playing on the Internet as much as in the neighborhood park, lawmakers here and in at least 13 other states want to protect them from predators.

They're considering bills that would make sex offenders register e-mail, instant messaging and other addresses used to communicate on Web sites. A similar bill has been introduced in Congress.

A Minnesota House panel approved the proposal on Tuesday after narrowly rejecting an attempt to require "Sexual Predator" license plates. The bill's sponsor, Democratic Rep. Steve Simon, said he didn't want to mix up the two issues.

"If you know where somebody lives and where somebody works, then you should also know what name they're using on the Internet."

Simon said state agencies are open to the e-mail requirement but want to wait until next year to make other changes to the registration form.

"The point here is to give the authorities some novel and potentially useful information," Simon said. "It's not so much where they are physically -- it's where they are in other ways as well."

Those who work with exploited children say the policies won't put an end to sex crimes against children, but they could help law enforcement make cases against offenders by connecting them with their virtual identities.

"If you know where somebody lives and where somebody works, then you should also know what name they're using on the Internet," said Michelle Collins, who heads the exploited child unit at the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.

Some probation and parole officers already get such information from the offenders they monitor, but the legislation would make it automatic.

But some wonder whether the move might complicate life for sex offenders already struggling under tighter scrutiny and regulations about where they can live and work.

"When this is combined with a large number of other requirements, there is a danger that we start to interfere with the reintegration and recovery of sex offenders and their ability to cope," said Eric Janus, a professor at St. Paul's William Mitchell College of Law.

One expert urged lawmakers considering e-mail registration policies to study the effect on smaller populations before passing broad laws.

David Finkelhor, who heads the Crimes Against Children Research Center at the University of New Hampshire, said there's already too much sex offender policy that doesn't work as it's intended.

"We should see it more as a tool to be used on a case-by-case basis than a blanket sort of thing that should be legislated by politicians," Finkelhor said. "It certainly could be useful in many cases or with some individuals -- but it may not."

E-mail registration requirements are being considered in Arizona, California, Colorado, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Oregon, Tennessee and Virginia, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

In Virginia, Attorney General Robert McDonnell is pushing to share sex offenders' online identities with to block them from using the popular social networking site.

Simon said he hopes Minnesota authorities can do something similar one day.

Minnesota's predatory offender registry contains information on more than 18,600 sex offenders and others whose crimes include murder, kidnapping, domestic assault and stalking, said database administrator AnnMarie O'Neill with the state Bureau of Criminal Apprehension.

Law enforcement and prison officials use the information to identify suspects and locate offenders. Registered offenders get a yearly form to verify their information and must tell the state if they move or get a new vehicle.

(Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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