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Calif. closer to online sex-offender registry

SAN FRANCISCO -- Californians may soon be able to access free information about sex offenders -- including their names, photos, and home addresses -- via the Internet.

Supporters predict the measure, given final legislative approval last week, will help Californians protect their children and improve the accuracy of the sex offender registry. But opponents worry it will encourage vigilante attacks against law-abiding ex-cons and their families.

Republican Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, who has not taken a position on the measure, has until Sept. 30 to decide whether the Megan's Law database should be posted on a state-run website.

Currently, residents who want to check out a teacher or coach must go to their local law enforcement agency during limited hours. They can search the database by name, county, or ZIP code. People also may use a phone line to get information, for a fee.

If approved, the Internet database would include all information already available to the public, including name, physical description, type of crime, and whether the registration is current. A new addition would be the home addresses for "the very worst offenders," including those convicted of rape and child molestation.

While all states have sex offender registries, California is one of six whose information is not Internet-accessible. Last month, Massachusetts began posting information on the Web about sex offenders considered the most dangerous.

"I'm really pleased," said Laura Ahearn, executive director of New York-based Parents for Megan's Law. "It's about time."

Addresses will be listed for about 50,000 of the 110,000 offenders on the database, according to the bill's coauthor, Assemblyman Todd Spitzer. "Now with exact addresses, there will be a lot of public pressure on accuracy," he said.

An Associated Press investigation last year revealed widespread deficiencies in the database. The AP reported that listings were often out of date and that more than 33,000 rapists and child molesters had failed to register. A state audit that later confirmed the findings fueled efforts to improve the system.

Supporters contend that reports from residents with access via the Internet will help improve the accuracy of the massive database. But that's exactly what others fear.

Cary Verse, the second man in the state to graduate from a sexually-violent predator treatment program, knows how people respond to learning their neighbor is a sex offender. He was forced out of four towns in six weeks before settling in a San Jose motel.

Listing an offender's home address on the Internet, he said, "not only endangers the individual, but puts a burden on family, friends, and even the property itself."

Paul Gerowitz, executive director of California Attorneys for Criminal Justice, a defense lawyer group, said publicizing the names of offenders rarely protects children because "the vast majority of sex offenses against children are committed by people known to their child victims."

If the governor signs the bill, the data will be posted by July.

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