If you live in Iowa and have small children like I do, you probably spent at least a little time recently on the computer checking the state's new online registry of sex offenders, at www.iosp.org.
For a parent, it's a dream come true. I have two daughters, one almost 4 years old, and the other almost 1. With a few clicks of the mouse, I was able to find the names, addresses and other pertinent information about all six sex offenders who live in the same town as I. One lives only two blocks from me.
Let me focus on him. He was convicted Aug. 15, 1997, of sexual assault involving a preteen girl, criminal sexual assault against a woman and aggravated criminal sexual assault against a preteen girl. The site doesn't provide any more information than that about the crimes.
I guarantee you that not only will I keep my children away from this man, but whenever I see him, I'm going to be filled with revulsion for what he's done. If I were to meet him on the street while I'm walking my dog, it would be next to impossible for me to interact with him without words like pedophile, pervert and rapist running through my mind.
I find that troubling.
Whether it's intended to or not, this registry automatically has become an added punishment to men and women -- usually men -- who already have paid their debt to society through a jail term.
As a result of this scarlet-letter treatment, this man has now been given the 21st-century version of the stocks. I know where he lives. I know how tall he is, what color his eyes and hair are, and with a little digging, I could find out all sorts of other personal information about him. If there's one thing a reporter's good at, it's digging up public information that other people like to think is private.
What's worse is that if anyone molests a child in the neighborhood, I know exactly who I'm going to suspect right from the get-go.
I'd like to think that if someone hurt one of my daughters, my wife and I would have the self-restraint not to take matters into our own hands, but I don't know. It's too easy to imagine making a beeline for the man's door in such a situation. Our passions run deep where our children are concerned.
Despite the gravity of the arguments I'm making now -- arguments that have been made ever since Megan Kanka was killed nine years ago and the law that bears her name was first proposed -- a U.S. Court of Appeals last month overturned a U.S. District court judge's decision that the registry violates privacy rights.
Essentially, the appellate court ruled that the protection of citizens outweighs an offender's privacy rights.
I can't fault parents who check the Web site -- I've done it myself -- but I do think the appellate court was dead wrong in its decision. Information about sex offenders and their records should be public information, but it shouldn't be so easily accessible.
The state has taken a tremendous risk in presenting the sex offender information in this format and especially on the Internet. This just doesn't make sense for someone who's not considered a high risk for repeat offenses, and if people are considered high risks, they don't belong on the Internet -- they belong in an institution, getting treatment.
To its credit, the Web site reminds users on almost every page that they can't misuse the information in the manner I've described. Anyone who uses the registry's information to commit a criminal offense faces three to five years in jail and a fine of up to $15,000.
That's well and good, but it assumes that people are going to be rational about a volatile subject. That is not always a safe assumption, particularly after an assault has occurred.
Stiffer penalties, some offered by other states, are not the answer. That Web site has to come down, and the state needs to find a better way to disseminate the information, if it is to be disseminated like this at all.