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Web site pinpoints sex offenders

| Tuesday, Jan. 25, 2005

With a few clicks of a mouse, Pennsylvania residents can find out whether a sex offender might be living in the neighborhood.

On Monday, state police unveiled a new service on the agency's Internet site listing 6,981 people who must register with police as sex offenders.

"We are using technology to make all the residents of the commonwealth, and in particular our children, safer and more secure," Gov. Ed Rendell said.

The Internet posting was required by changes to the state's Megan's Law that were signed into law in November. Some people, including then-Auditor General Robert P. Casey Jr., called the previous version weak and ineffective.

"The intent was to give families the information they need to protect their children," Casey spokeswoman Karen Walsh said. "The intent of the law is finally being realized today with families finally getting this notice."

The Web site allows users to search for sex offenders by county, city, ZIP code, name or alias. In addition to names and photos, the site lists the cities and counties where offenders live, the year they were born, their crimes and year of conviction, the towns where they work and whether they attend or are employed by an educational institution beyond high school. Street addresses are listed only for sexually violent predators, the most serious category of offender.

The previous site carried information only on sexually violent predators, about 60 people statewide. The new site lists those convicted of crimes such as indecent assault and rape. The cases involve adult and child victims. Sexual predators still in prison might not be listed.

The most serious offenders will be listed for life; others, for 10 years.

Walsh said that under the earlier law, Pennsylvania's listing of sex offenders seriously lagged behind those in Ohio, New York and New Jersey, possibly making Pennsylvania a haven for sex offenders looking to duck the label. Now, sex offenders who move to Pennsylvania must register within 10 days.

"(Sex offenders) kind of viewed ... coming to Pennsylvania as a safe harbor, and that all is now going to change," said state Sen. Jay Costa, D-Forest Hills, who was on a task force that helped write the changes. "We've closed a lot of the gaps, a lot of the problems, that we had with this law."

In the past, representatives of the state chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union said that posting such information on the Internet makes it more difficult for offenders who have served prison time to return to a community and get jobs. An ACLU spokesman couldn't be reached yesterday.

The state police site notes that some information may be outdated or inaccurate. The site also should not be considered a comprehensive listing of everyone who has ever committed a sex crime in the state, police said.

Col. Jeffrey Miller, state police commissioner, said anyone using information from the site to intimidate or harass a registered sex offender could face criminal charges or civil liability. He said that because of the large number of people accessing the site, it might be slow to respond in the next few days.

The state's Megan's Law was enacted in 1995 after 7-year-old Megan Kanka of Hamilton, N.J., was kidnapped, raped and killed in 1994 by a convicted sex offender who lived in her neighborhood.

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