Dispatches from a Reporter's Notebook

Protecting the Innocent

Posted April 24, 2007 9:35 p.m. EDT
Updated April 26, 2007 6:02 a.m. EDT

The North Carolina Sex Offender Registry just got a makeover.  Now users can get information about 10,000 registered sex offenders e-mailed to them by simply  plugging in a name or an address.  They can also view an aerial map of where the sex offenders are located near their home, their child's school, or dayc-are center.

The information is all part of the public record, but the new technology of this state-of-the-art interactive Web site makes it available to North Carolina citizens in a new and efficient way.  The goal of the Web site is to create awareness and allow families to take wise precautions.  However, some people are concerned that sharing this kind of information, in such a public way, unfairly penalizes people who have already paid their debt to society within the criminal justice system. 

But having interviewed many victims of sex crimes over the years, I would argue that there is no way to truly ever repay the debt to someone who has suffered  this kind of crime, especially when that someone is a child.  These victims are scarred for life.  I can remember one man I interviewed told me how sexual abuse as a child sent him into a deep depression, followed by drug and alcohol abuse, and made him suicidal.  It took him years to recover and begin to live his life again free of the pain that plagued him for most of his life.  The registry presents an opportunity to prevent this from happening to someone else.

Clearly, vigilante justice is wrong, but it is a possible risk of such a system.  There are some people, I'm sure, who are afraid that by following the law and registering they will be the target of violence.  This is probably one reason why hundreds of sex offenders a year are cited in North Carolina for not registering.  Even more likely than violence, sex offenders have been -- and I'm sure, will continue to be -- run out of neighborhoods when people find out they are living nearby.  It is not uncommon for neighbors in these situations to pass out fliers and hand out petitions forcing the sex offender to move.  It doesn't happen often, but it happens. 

Much of the research regarding child sex offenders, despite many innovative therapies, is that they cannot ever be cured.  I will never forget a pedophile I interviewed early on in my career.  He had been incarcerated in a Maine prison for nine years and still had several years to go on his sentence.  He was soft-spoken, articulate and polite.  Had I not known what he had been convicted of, I would have thought he was in the wrong place.  He looked me straight in the eye and told me point blank that he would re-offend if he was around children after his release from prison.  This means that the only possible solution is for child sex offenders to stay away from children.  This is why the North Carolina General Assembly passed a law that took effect in December prohibiting sex offenders from living within 1,000 feet of a school or a day-care center.  Again, some would say this deprives sex offenders of their civil liberties, others would say it simply makes good sense.

It is a complicated issue, and I'm sure it is one that will continue to be debated here in North Carolina and across the country.  Ultimately, I think most people feel that the protection of potential victims, especially children, outweighs the potential violation of someone's civil rights.  

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WRAL's Amanda Lamb offers a behind-the-scenes look at what TV news reporters do, the people they meet and how their jobs affect them.