The arrival of a certain registered sex offender, and the subsequent notice of it in this newspaper, has created quite a stir in the community. It has also created a challenge for this editor in terms of balancing the rights of an individual with the community’s right to know.
It all started last week when Curry County Sheriff John Bishop issued a public notice that a registered sex offender was being released from prison on parole in Curry County after serving a 23-year prison term for kidnapping a young woman. He also has a history of assaulting and raping young women.
Sex offender notices, along with photos, usually are published matter-of-factly inside the pages of the Pilot, as is our policy. However, the notice of this particular sex offender was published in story form on the front page. Why? Because Bishop, in an unusual move by a law enforcement official, made a point of protesting the state’s classification of this particular sex offender.
Bishop fervently believed this person should be listed as a predatory sex offender, rather than a non-predatory sex offender. The reason, Bishop explained, was that authorities can release more information to the public if a person is considered a predator.
The Pilot’s story included Bishop’s comments as well as a description and the criminal history of the offender, along with his photo taken more than 23 years ago (it was the only one available at the time). At the time the story was published, the offender had not yet arrived in Curry County and established a residence. Since then, the Pilot has learned of his residence, which is most likely a temporary one, and has received an updated photo.
Meanwhile, a number of concerned residents have posted flyers around town with information and the photo of the sex offender. We have received several phone calls from people wanting to know exactly where the offender is living, and requesting that we publish an updated photo.
Therein lies the crux of this dilemma, of trying to balancing the rights of opposing interests.
We are duty-bound to report matters when there is a clear public interest while trying to avoid the following possible consequences:
•driving the offender underground away from parole and probation supervision.
•intrusion into an offender’s privacy.
•negative impact on the victims and their families, or the family of the offender.
The sheriff has done all that state law allows, and the Pilot has duly reported the information to the public. At what point does further action go above and beyond the law and into the area of vigilantism?
When the rights of convicted felons come in conflict with the safety of our community, it makes sense to err on the side of protecting innocent people. But in doing so, we can’t escape from the uncomfortable reality that even sex offenders, as repugnant as they may seem, have rights.
The intent of the sex offender registry and subsequent public notices is to raise the public’s awareness. Don’t panic. Rather, read all the information provided, assess the risk and use common sense. It is not permission to harass that person. People need to be vigilant, but not vigilantes.
The sex offender registry, while better than the rumor mill, is not a perfect system. It does not help in the case of undetected sexual offenders. Don’t make the mistake of depending on sex offender notices to keep your children safe from harm. People must be ever watchful. A Web site or notice in the newspaper cannot do that. Only caring parents and community can.