The federal government’s first Chief Information Officer, Vivek Kundra, used to be the District of Columbia’s top geek. He caught the Obama administration’s eye by, among other things, finding innovative ways to put public data online, and especially to make it more easily accessible through the use of third-party apps. A prime illustration of the idea is DC’s creepily fascinating sex offender database, which lets you input any address and then uses Google Maps to display the locations (within a block) of all the registered sex offenders within a half-mile radius. Click on a map location and you can pull up a mini-dossier with a mugshot and some details of the offense. Apparently, I live about a block from a 52-year-old man convicted of “misdemeanor sexual abuse” against a 13-year-old in 2006. I don’t see any reason this kind of thing couldn’t—very easily—be converted into an application for a geosensitive smartphone. If you really wanted to creep yourself out, you might even set it to pop up with an alert whenever you came within a certain range of an offender.
Based on a cursory scan, most of the people in the database seem to have committed truly vile acts—rape or sexual assault or child molestation. But there are a significant minority who—reading between the lines, using the rather vague wording of the offenses and the relevant ages of perpetrator and victim—basically seem to fall in the category of “young 20-something who had some kind of sexual contact, possibly consensual, with a 15-year-old.” Now, I have no problem with the state deterring and punishing that conduct, but I do wonder whether it’s wise to permanently and publicly group those people with violent rapists. A college student dating a high school girl may be displaying questionable judgment, but I’m not sure he’s therefore a danger to anyone else’s children 20 years later. Of course, the concerned parent can just pull up the rap sheet and see who’s guilty of what, but some states employ particularly confusing terminology: Florida’s legal system apparently classes age-inappropriate sexual contact as “lascivious battery.”
Many other cases are similarly unclear. I don’t know about you, but in my mind, the words “misdemeanor” and “sexual abuse” do not belong together—certainly not in a case involving a man in his 50s and a victim of 13. Yet there they are juxtaposed on my neighbor’s rap sheet. What exactly does that mean? Was that a conviction at trial or a plea? How dangerous should a concerned parent consider this guy?
That sort of uncertainty highlights a point legal scholar Jeff Rosen likes to make: Loss of privacy tends to cascade, because when one piece of information is exposed, it may require further disclosures to put it into context. In the case of sex offenders, of course, the privacy interests of the victims will often limit the amount of detail it’s advisable to put online, since a description of circumstances may well be enough to identify the victim to people who know the offender.
That aside, I’d be fascinated to see whether putting this information online actually has any other measurable effects. When registries are easily searchable, to neighborhoods with higher concentrations of sex offenders see relative declines in propety values? Lower rates of school registration? Does that accellerate such clustering by reducing the number of landords willing to rent to registered offenders? If we’ve got any social science grad students reading, this sounds like an easy road to a potential blockbuster paper.