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editorial

Public needs greater access to sex offenders’ records

Perpetrators of sex crimes against children, including infants, already have the terrible advantage of targeting victims who are unable to testify. There is no reason for the state to make matters worse by shielding convicted pedophiles and other serious sex offenders from being publicly identified.

Earlier this month, 49-year-old Wakefield resident John Burbine was indicted on charges of raping and abusing at least 13 infants and young children dating back to 2010. Burbine had been convicted three times of indecent assault and battery on a child in 1989, earning him a place on the state’s sex offender registry. But because he was labeled as a Level 1 offender — the kind least likely to reoffend, based on 24 statutory factors — his name was withheld from everyone with the exception of law enforcement. Imagine the pain of the victims’ families when the Middlesex district attorney alleged that Burbine’s latest crimes took place while working with children through his wife’s unlicensed day care center.

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Governor Patrick has filed a needed bill that would make Level 1 sex offender information available to the public upon request. Additionally, the names of Level 2 sex offenders — those with a moderate likelihood of reoffending — would be searchable on the Internet in similar manner to the Level 3 offenders who are deemed most likely to reoffend. More than half of the state’s roughly 11,000 sex offenders are classified as Level 2. That’s a strong statistical argument for better public access to their names and whereabouts.

In the past, there was concern that those convicted of marginal offenses — such as public urination or older teens engaging in sex with partners younger than age 16 — would have their lives ruined by inclusion on the registry. But a conviction for indecent exposure, a misdemeanor, has never been grounds for listing, according to a spokesman for the Sex Offender Registry Board. And the classification process distinguishes real sex criminals from 17-year-olds involved in relationships with slightly younger teens. (For good measure, the Legislature could simply tune up the law to keep the latter offenders off the state registry entirely.)

The Supreme Judicial Court has determined that classifying individuals solely by the charge on which they were convicted violates the state constitution; additional factors, such as mental soundness or a stable home life, that suggest the risk of recidivism is low must be taken into consideration. Convicted sex offenders in Massachusetts also enjoy the right to challenge their classification through an evidentiary hearing. Especially in light of these safeguards, the heightened public-disclosure requirements included in Patrick’s bill are fair. The measure would shorten the time frame for sex offenders to report changes of address and require Level 1 offenders to register at police stations, instead of by mail.

The legislation won’t change the fact that sex crimes, especially those against children, are hard to prosecute. But it will give families a fighting chance to identify the convicted sex offenders already in their midst.

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