By Corey Friedman
Want to know if your neighbor’s a registered sex offender? North Carolina law makes it easy to find out. But when it comes to checking on a classmate or store clerk, state residents are largely left in the dark.
A 2006 federal law, the Sex Offender Registration and Notification Act, makes information about offenders’ workplaces, the schools they attend and the cars they drive available on public registries. Fifteen states have changed their sex offender laws to comply with the new federal rules, but North Carolina isn’t among them.
State Attorney General Roy Cooper and the N.C. Department of Justice are urging lawmakers to adopt SORNA guidelines. The state’s already incurring a 10 percent penalty in federal justice grant funding for its failure to comply with the law, passed in 2006 as part of the Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act.
Lawmakers don’t seem eager to rubber-stamp policies written in Washington and handed down to states as if etched on stone tablets. They want time to study SORNA, and they want to review North Carolina’s sex offender registry and make necessary changes irrespective of the federal law.
“We’re not too enthusiastic about being told what to do by the Justice Department,” said state Sen. E.S. “Buck” Newton, a Wilson Republican. “We’ll make sure we do what’s right for the citizens of North Carolina.”
We admire our lawmakers’ independent streak and what we believe is a sincere commitment to crafting the best laws for North Carolina. But we expect our state to be a leader in transparency and public access to criminal records. As it stands, we lag behind at least 15 other states, and that’s simply unacceptable.
In South Carolina, registered sex offenders’ license plate numbers, descriptions of the cars they own and operate and the addresses of their workplaces and schools are posted on the online registry. Here in the Tar Heel State, none of that information is publicly available.
That means residents have no practical way to find out whether those we interact with at school, at work and in daily business dealings are sex offenders. There’s no excuse for this information blackout when federal law made these and other details public six years ago.
While not every individual convicted of a sex-related crime poses a public threat, we believe access to comprehensive information about sex offenders is crucial. North Carolinians deserve to know their coworkers and classmates’ criminal history so they can take precautions to protect themselves and their families.
Civil liberties groups and academics point out that sex offenders listed on public registries reoffend at roughly the same rate as those convicted before the registries were maintained. They suggest the sex offender registry is the modern-day equivalent of the stockade and wonder whether publicly shaming a small group of convicts makes it more difficult for them to become productive citizens.
Those are important points to ponder, but in the end, residents’ right to know who our court system has convicted of sex crimes outweighs the offenders’ desire for a clean slate in society.
State statutes and case law have long held that government documents are the public’s property. That’s especially true in the case of criminal records. Updating North Carolina’s sex offender registry would put more information in the public’s hands, and residents can use that information to make decisions about where they work, attend school, shop and eat.
We’re not convinced that SORNA is perfect or that the law in its entirety is right for North Carolina. But we are sure that its public information provisions are vital updates to our state sex offender registry.
[Note: This post originally appeared in The Wilson Times.]
Lawmakers should take the time they need to study SORNA and tinker with state laws. In the meantime, however, they can make more information about sex offenders available to the public without further delay.
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