Monday, August 15, 2005

Federal sex offender registry lacking

Senator Vitter's legislation to create a federal sex offender registry is a laudable, but insufficient effort to ensure compliance with the public notification requirements, and to facilitate public awareness of sex offenders living in their communities.

The bill passed in the Senate, but needs to be modified before the House votes on it, and before a joint resolution is passed.

Here is an excerpted letter I sent to Senator Vitter on the issue:

Please ask Senator Vitter to:

1) Eliminate non-violent sex offenders from the database.

2) Create a truly GIS-enabled search engine so that the boundary problems of zip code polygons don't prevent users from identifying potentially threatening offenders who reside in the next zip code area.

3) Ensure the systems and funding are in place to validate addresses on a regular basis.

As I said, I've spent a significant amount of time trying to sell the idea to various law enforcement decision makers without success. I strongly believe in the issue of public notification - for dangerous offenders - but quite frankly, I've seen many opportunities and a fortune in tax dollars spent on badly designed projects. So I was both excited by Senator Vitter's bill to create a zip code database, and disappointed. I was disappointed because a zip code database is a step in the right direction, but geographically, insufficient to ensure citizens' safety.

When the Louisiana State Police first came out with the sex offender database, I judged the utility of the database to be virtually nil, unless a person had a lot of time to page through the results and knew where all of the listed addresses were relative to where they lived. Very disappointing. Furthermore, it's very difficult, without clicking the hyperlinks to the offense descriptions, to know who the really bad offenders are. This is not just an issue of politics (protecting the privacy of non-violent offenders). It's also an issue of safety. Why obscure the really violent offenders who might hurt you or your children by mixing them up with the multitudes of non-violent offenders?

In order to demonstrate how to better make use of offender residence locations, I created a prototype application that would allow a user to type in his or her home address and get a map and listing of all the offenders who resided within a user-defined radius of his or her home (approximately what you see in the map included with this message).

The St. Tammany Parish Sheriff's Office should be commended for implementing precisely this type of radius search tool on its web site (example of a search result attached, sttammany_search.jpg):

Please indulge me a moment longer to elaborate upon an additional, vital reason for GIS-enabling a federal sex offender registry.

The map I attached actually presents a hypothetical abduction scenario I created. In this scenario, the victim was abducted while walking to school from home. I mapped the home address, the school the victim was traveling to, and the victim's likely route traveled. I then mapped any sex offenders who lived within a quarter-mile of the route the victim traveled. These offenders would be the first for officers to investigate.

Law enforcement agencies need to respond immediately in abduction cases. The chances of finding a victim alive an unharmed may rapidly diminish. Public notification via the Amber Alert is good, but law enforcement needs to be empowered to respond with information technology to improve the likelihood of finding the victim. The ability to search offender residence locations within and across jurisdictions can greatly improve the response time.

The best example I can think of in which information systems deficiencies seriously handicapped law enforcement was the Lisa Bruno abduction in 2000. She was taken to Houston where her abductor was a registered sex offender. Until she escaped and was found in a New Orleans bus station, she was missing for days, and law enforcement was clueless about how to find her. Amber Alerts still weren't established statewide, and there were few reliable sex offender databases available. They would be useless anyway, since none were GIS-enabled. I imagine that then police chief Morris was just frantic calling around to different jurisdictions to try to piece together lists of offenders and any other clues.

Had Lisa Bruno not escaped, or been released, her story might have ended tragically - as many other stories like hers, sadly, have ended, and will continue to end, until a smarter approach to registering sex offender location information is created, a systematic approach to validating that those addresses are accurate is followed, and the resulting data is GIS-enabled.

Improving public awareness and rapid response is possible. I implore Senator Vitter to revisit his legislation, and to work with the House to make the changes I have outlined.


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