Legal & Criminal Justice

Legal & Criminal Justice
Offender Search Features Help People Find Criminals in Their Communities

Offender Search Features Help People Find Criminals in Their Communities

Article Highlights

  • The main crimes where offenders’ information is published online are sexual offenses.
  • Personal information published online could have an effect on convicted offenders and their families.

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People no longer have to wonder if certain types of convicted felons are living or working in their neighborhoods thanks to websites that offer offender search features, empowering individuals to investigate the safety of their communities. The data provided varies, but information such as the home and work addresses of offenders, as well as the crimes they were convicted of committing can often be found with the click of a mouse.

"The general purpose of publishing a criminal’s personal information is to give people in the community the opportunity to be aware of a convicted felon living in the area,” says David Patterson, Criminal Justice program director at South University — Richmond.

Many states publish this information online, but there are also other web services, such as Family Watchdog, where people can search for registered sex offenders in their area.

Teresa Stone of Family Watchdog says the purpose of the site is to keep people informed and aware of those that are around them. Stone says that when the conviction information for people living around you, or that you are associating with, is publically accessible, you can use it to make your own informed decisions as to how you choose to interact with ex-cons.

“We invite you to use our free service to locate registered sex offenders in your area,” Stone says.

Registering Convicted Felons

Patterson says offender registration laws vary from state to state.

Public advertising of an offender’s whereabouts is a mixed bag.

“It is common to require a felon on parole to register with the police or sheriff’s department upon finding a place to live,” Patterson says. “Other laws, especially aimed at sexual offenders allow or require this information to be available for public viewing online.”

Stone says the main crimes where offenders’ information is published online are sexual offenses, but some states also include those convicted of violent crimes or drug offenses.

Offender Search Results

Patterson says it is difficult to gauge how helpful publishing criminal information online is to communities.

“Public advertising of an offender’s whereabouts is a mixed bag,” Patterson says. “While intended to accomplish a public safety goal, it often leads to discrimination or prejudice against an offender who might be trying to ‘go straight.’”

Patterson says there can also be several other negative consequences involved with making this information publically available.

“For example, the broad definition of ‘sexual offender’ leads to an overwhelming number of people on the list, people who do not pose a significant risk to the population — prostitutes, pimps, johns, and other less predatory offenders,” Patterson says. “This large number also makes it more difficult for police to maintain surveillance of them because the number is so large.”

Patterson says if registration was limited to the serious predatory offenders such as rapists and pedophiles, it would be much easier to keep track of them.

Offender Search Side Effects

Stone says having personal information published online could have an effect on convicted offenders and their families.

“The information regarding prior convictions being publicly accessible would more than likely have an impact on those that (were) included,” Stone says. “There are laws in place that make it illegal for people to use the information included in public registries to harass or injure offenders.”

Patterson says that publishing this information is not intended to result in any recriminations for the offender, but that frequently does happen. 

“To the extent that the public takes an active, non-accepting attitude toward the offender, rather than a more passive state of higher awareness, it will decrease his ability to achieve reintegration into the community,” Patterson says. “Sometimes this negative acceptance by the community is so severe that he is forced to move again and again until he eventually moves somewhere and tells no one where he has moved, and then some unsuspecting community is left without the opportunity to be made aware of his presence in their community.” 

Stone believes publishing criminal information does help to keep the people informed about convicted felons around them.

“We have received emails from the public, however, on different ways that they use the information provided in registries to be proactive in keeping themselves and their families’ safe,” Stone says. “While it may not stop possible offenders from offending, it does give the community the awareness to keep themselves out of harms way.”

Author: Laura Jerpi

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