(Host) The Senate Judiciary Committee is considering a bill that would expand Vermont’s Sex Offender Registry. Commentator Cheryl Hanna offers her thoughts on this controversial issue.
(Hanna) Last year, 18-year-old Tara Stratton was brutally murdered in her Barre apartment. The man accused of the crime was the father of her boyfriend and he is cirrently listed on Vermont’s Sex Offender Registry for raping and impregnating a 15-year-old girl in 1992.
Tara’s family claims that there had been rumors about his past – rumors that might have lead them to search out more information. Yet, under Vermont’s current law, there was no easy way for Tara and her family to find out more. Now Tara’s family, along with others, is urging the Vermont Legislature to make the identities of the more than 1900 convicted sex offenders in Vermont more accessible to the public, including publishing their names and photographs on the internet.
Advocates of community notification bills got a big boost last year from the United States Supreme Court. Such laws are constitutional, the Court reasoned, because any loss of privacy or damage to the sex offender’s reputation is outweighed by the potential benefit of community safety. Forty-four states have passed similar laws, usually in response to high profile cases like Tara’s.
Like most Americans, and, I assume, most Vermonters, I generally support the idea that the public ought to have easy access to information when it comes to sex offenders. There’s just something about this crime, and those who commit it, that justifies the public’s right to know. But this is just the beginning.
It’s expected that an increasing amount of information about someone’s entire criminal history will be easily accessible on the internet, and community notification laws could go as far as the government sending you a letter informing you that your neighbor did time for drug distribution.
Last year’s Supreme Court decision paves the way to extend community notification laws beyond sex offenses, and at least in Vermont, there’s also the political will to do so. Governor Douglas has proposed that residents be notified when drug dealers move into the area.
Even though the idea fell flat last session, one high profile case involving a convicted drug dealer befriending a neighborhood kid and then hooking her on heroine, and the idea could catch-on. And that’s where I start to get nervous.
It’s not that I want to protect convicted criminals or that I’m indifferent to community safety. But I’m wondering – what are we supposed to do with all this information beyond live in fear?
Everyone expects the legislature to pass some form of community notification. And that’s the right thing to do. But it’s also important to think about the slippery-slope of expanding these laws to other crimes, and what that might mean for Vermont.
Community notification may turn to out to be an effective way to reduce crime, or it may turn into an Orwellian nightmare. My question to all of us who support community notification for sex offenders is how far is too far, and are we really ready to find out?
This is Cheryl Hanna.
Cheryl Hanna is a professor at Vermont Law School in South Royalton, Vermont.