We see a recent state Supreme Court ruling on the public release of registered sex offenders as victory and a defeat.
We are adamant proponents for access to public records and champion the critical role of that information to make sure our government and public agencies are being fair and just.
When the state Supreme Court ruled that Donna Zink was entitled to access to information about thousands of low-level sex offenders, it overturned rulings of lower courts preventing the release of that data.
Since our state enacted the Community Protection Act in 1990, it had been widely agreed that registered Level 1 sex offenders, those considered the least likely to reoffend, were exempt from having their personal information released to the public.
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Many Level 1 offenders were juveniles when the crime occurred. Often, it was an issue over the age of consent in a teenage couple. Some classified as Level 1 offenders are still under the age of 18. And that’s where this issue gets complicated.
The state law says that public agencies are authorized to release information to the public regarding sex offenders and kidnapping offenders when the agency determines that disclosure of the information is relevant and necessary to protect the public and to counteract the danger created by the particular offender. It also states that except for specifics for the worst offenders and those out of compliance, “the extent of the public disclosure of relevant and necessary information shall be rationally related to: (a) The level of risk posed by the offender to the community; (b) the locations where the offender resides, expects to reside, or is regularly found; and (c) the needs of the affected community members for information to enhance their individual and collective safety.”
That system of not disclosing Level I data worked until Zink requested the information of more than 21,000 sex offenders from the Washington State Patrol. More than half of those were Level I offenders. Basic information on Level II & III offenders is readily available from law enforcement. Just go to a local jurisdiction’s website and the information is posted.
The American Civil Liberties Union argued against the release of the Level I information. “Being identified publicly as a sex offender puts individuals at risk of being harassed, assaulted, or losing jobs and housing,” wrote Jennifer Shaw, deputy director, in an email to the Herald. “For individuals considered unlikely to reoffend, being labeled publicly as a sex offender creates a stigma that makes it very difficult for them to proceed with their lives.”
The state patrol will now release the requested information to Zink. The former Mesa mayor plans to post it online for the world to see.
The Supreme Court said the language in the Community Protection Act did not specifically prevent the release of Level I information.
We have no problem with the information of registered sex offenders who pose a danger to the community being public. That’s a practice we’ve endorsed over the years and an important component to public safety.
But the low-risk offenders, many who made a mistake as a teen, are more likely harmed by the release of the information than the community is benefitted. We’d be in favor of an amendment to the law that would offer them a bit more protection from public scrutiny, but would still allow law enforcement to provide information on those they believe to be a threat.
So while it’s a win for open public records, it may be time to revisit the Community Protection Act to correct it to match what had been in practice for more than 25 years.