Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Another Registry? Not So Fast !

Sunjournal.com (Maine): Another registry? Not so fast ! Tuesday, July 8, 2008

If there's one thing Maine knows about online criminal registries, it's that they carry unforeseen consequences.

The Department of Corrections plans to publish the an online database of 10,000 people serving prison or probation terms. The logic is simple: providing public information, to the public, for the benefit of the public.

Yet this is the same logic that, tragically, helped a Canadian man murder two registered sex offenders in Maine in 2006. Stephen Marshall researched his victims via Maine's online registry.

The murders raised many questions about online registries; Maine's highest court answered some in a landmark decision last year, in which it said the registry had become possibly unconstitutional.

The core problem with criminal registries is stigma. Although those registered earned their inclusion, unless the registry makes clear differentiation among them and their crimes, the public's natural inclination is assuming the worst, which can breed contempt, suspicion and fear.

Just like Hester Prynne, the adulteress in Nathaniel Hawthorne's "The Scarlet Letter," her shame as a public pariah overshadowed her personal attributes. It was impossible for Prynne to seek or earn redemption while her crime was broadcast from the red "A" pinned to her clothing.

The law court's evaluation of the steady expansion of Maine's sex offender registry, which grew to include crimes and criminals dating back decades, echoed this notion.

It must be weighed whether a public registry of probationers and prisoners can preserve their rights, while also providing a valuable public benefit. Could a registry be an incentive against criminal behavior? Will it protect people from harm, or only further castigate criminals?

How does one separate the dangerous from the reformed? Is there a legal liability for the state if the online registry contains misinformation? At what point does a convicted criminal pay their debt to society, if they must register?

Such questions need time to consider. Maine's sex offender registry has existed for years, without yet reaching a conclusion. Before any new registries are opened, a good amount of examination needs to occur.

If there's one thing Maine should know by now, it's not to start a registry, then try to answer the questions later.