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Sex Offenders Must Report Emails , Phones

March 29, 2009

DallasNews.com : Bill targeting online predators calls for Texas sex offenders to report e-mail addresses, numbers.

Austin – Registering as a sex offender has made it hard enough for Marc P. to have anything resembling a normal life.

The Dallas County man, who received deferred adjudication more than a decade ago for having sex with a 14-year-old when he was 18, has his address and photo on file for the world to see – not a selling point, he says, for potential employers, landlords or girlfriends.

Now, Texas lawmakers want Marc and other registered sex offenders to also report their e-mail addresses, cellphone numbers and online screen names to the state, and to give social networking sites permission to boot them offline.

Opponents say the legislation would add another layer of data to a state sex offender database that already contains too many inaccuracies. And it would make it even harder for sex offenders who have served their time to participate in modern society. To Marc, now 33, it’s simply a higher price than he should have to pay for a one-time mistake.

“What’s next, a chip in my brain? A scarlet letter?” asked Marc, who lives with his parents, is attending junior college and feels such a strong stigma against sex offenders that he asked that his last name not be used. “Are they going to look me up on dating Web sites? Check out my Facebook page? Now I’m going to be punished for being computer literate.”

Texas’ current registry requires sex offenders to report their address, birth date, height, weight and race to local authorities, and to keep an up-to-date photo on file. This information is available to the public on searchable Web sites.

The proposed bill would make it a state jail felony not to also register e-mail addresses, cellphone numbers and other online identifiers, such as screen names and social networking monikers, with the state.

Critics of the proposed expansion of the database also note that the registration system, which contains information on nearly 50,000 Texans, is already riddled with errors and omissions. A 2006 Dallas Morning News review of the registry found it was highly inaccurate: Roughly half of North Texas sex offenders could not be located, and one in six were living somewhere other than their registered addresses.

If the goal is safe communities, human-rights advocates say, convicted sex offenders are far less likely to commit new crimes if they can successfully re-enter the community. Finding safe housing and a good job often requires Internet access, social networking sites and e-mail accounts – all things sex offenders may shy from if they’re burdened with registration requirements.

“If we make it so that people just don’t want to have online identifiers, it’s going to make it even more difficult for them to conduct job searches, to respond to e-mail inquiries about housing,” said Sarah Tofte, a researcher with Human Rights Watch. “It will make it next to impossible for them to try to establish some stability in their lives.”

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