March 14, 2007

Law Of Diminishing Returns

The Minnesota legislature will debate a proposal to require sex offenders to register their e-mail addresses and Internet chat identities, a move under consideration in several other states. Proponents claim that it will make it easier for prosecutors to link the offenders to these profiles when they need to charge them with future sex crimes:

Sex offenders already have to tell Minnesota authorities where they live, work, attend school and vacation. Soon they might also have to provide their e-mail addresses.

With children playing on the Internet as much as in the neighborhood park, lawmakers here and in at least 13 other states want to protect them from predators. They're considering bills that would make sex offenders register e-mail, instant-messaging and other addresses used to communicate on Web sites. A similar bill has been introduced in Congress.

A Minnesota House panel approved the proposal Tuesday after narrowly rejecting an attempt to require "Sexual Predator" license plates. Those who work with exploited children say that the policies won't put an end to sex crimes against children, but that they could help law enforcement agencies make cases against offenders by connecting them with their virtual identities.

I'm no bleeding heart; I'm a throw-away-the-key-and-let-them-rot kind of guy when it comes to sex offenders. Child molesters especially should get life in prison, since we have discovered over the years that the recidivism rates are so high and the compulsion so strong. We have an obligation to protect those who cannot protect themselves.

That being said, this law strikes me as an overreach. I'm not talking about civil liberties; I see nothing unconstitutional about this proposal. The problems with it should be obvious to anyone who regularly works on the Internet, which is to say that people can change e-mail addresses at a rate faster than they change the oil in their car, and chat identities at a rate similar to changing their socks.

Residential registration makes sense, because it allows the community to defend itself. When a sex offender moves into a neighborhood, that information helps let the other residents know about the potential danger from that predator. Those concerned can check websites on a regular basis to see whether they have any registered offenders near their homes. The license plate legislation would have done the same thing, only a bit more conspicuously, and it would have allowed witnesses to suspicious situations another hint that trouble might be brewing -- for instance, as a child got into a car near a school.

This legislation makes little sense. Even presuming that the offenders would comply, it would require a significant expenditure of manpower and funds for law enforcement to catalog and cross-reference the data. If the offenders did not comply, who would know? It's not the same as residential registration. People have to live somewhere, and unless very wealthy, only live one place at a time. Many people have more than one e-mail address, and they change on a constant basis. When will law enforcement check on this? How?

This bill seems like a colossal waste of time and money. It does nothing to secure neighborhoods, like residential registration does, and it creates an impossible standard for everyone to meet. I appreciate the legislature's intent, but they apparently don't know very much about e-mail, chat rooms, or the Internet.


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