State-by-state information on sex offenders will be available on a new Internet site run by the federal government. Participation by states is voluntary. The Justice Department said it hoped to have the site up and running within two months.
The announcement by Attorney General Alberto Gonzales on Friday coincided with National Missing Children’s Day.
The site won’t provide any information not already made available on the Internet by 49 states, the District of Columbia and U.S. territories. But it will be designed to allow someone to do a national search online to determine whether an individual who has been convicted in one state has moved to another.
“With this technology, every citizen and law enforcement officer will be able to search the latest information for the identity and location of known sex offenders,” Gonzales said in a speech at the National Press Club.
Privacy advocates have been wary of publishing the names of people who already have served their sentence.
But several recent high-profile abductions and killings, including the case of nine-year-old Jessica Lunsford of Florida, have led to calls for widened access to the information. “It is absolutely critical that we do better in tracking convicted sex offenders, and establishing a publicly available national database is a key part of that effort,” said Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D.
Dorgan introduced legislation to create a national database after authorities arrested a sex offender from Minnesota for the murder of a woman just across the state line in North Dakota. The man would not have been identified on North Dakota’s registry, Dorgan said.
Every state but Oregon publishes the names, photos and backgrounds of at least some people convicted of a variety of sex crimes, particularly those involving children. But different rules apply as to what information can be accessed. Oregon State Police Lt. Gregg Hastings says his agency maintains a sex offender registration program that provides information to the public over the phone, but does not yet have a public Web.
In Florida, for example, state officials this week expanded the area that residents can check, up to a five-mile radius from their home or school. For years, the search could only encompass the same zip code.
The change followed the killing of Lunsford. John Couey, the man authorities say has confessed to the crime, is a registered sex offender who was living 150 yards from Lunsford’s home in Homosassa, Fla.
In his speech and a question-and-answer session that followed, Gonzales:
_ Called for a vote on all of President Bush’s judicial nominees, dismissing a possible compromise to avert a showdown over Senate rules.
_ Urged Congress to give the FBI the power to subpoena records in terrorism investigations without the approval of a judge or jury, saying the bureau already has that power in many criminal matters. “If you can use administrative subpoenas to go after bad doctors, why can’t you use them to go after terrorists?” he said.
_Said that requests for documents under the federal Freedom of Information Act “shouldn’t be such a burden on agencies,” but didn’t take a position on legislation that would tighten FOIA compliance deadlines and levy fines on agencies that miss deadlines.
Justice Department Office of Justice Programs: http://www.ojp.usdoj.gov/