Proposed sex offenders website ignites debate
The Canadian Press
Published Tuesday, June 7, 2011 3:22PM EDT
TORONTO - Ontario could be the first province in Canada to create a website listing the names and addresses of its registered sex offenders -- a controversial proposal that's sparking a debate in the province.
Some experts say it's an essential tool that would better protect children from predators, while others are raising questions about whether it could lead to vigilante action.
The election promise by the Progressive Conservatives goes further than any other program in Canada that's designed to warn the public about high-risk offenders.
Alberta is currently the only province that has a website listing the names and photos of high-risk offenders. However, it doesn't provide their addresses for safety reasons.
If they form the next government, the Ontario Tories say they'd put the province's sex offender registry online, allowing the public access to the names and locations of 14,100 individuals.
The website is "absolutely needed" to better protect kids from predators, said Paul Gillespie, a former Toronto police officer who co-founded the Kids' Internet Safety Alliance.
"If people had any idea how many sex offenders were living in their neighbourhoods, they would be astonished, to be very honest with you," he said in an interview.
"If they're considering buying a house or, in fact, somebody is on their street that might pose a threat, I think they deserve to know, so they can better protect their children."
But people should also ask themselves what might be gained from making that information public, and what could happen as a result, said Ann Cavoukian, the province's privacy commissioner.
Police already keep tabs on registered sex offenders and have the power to notify the public if there's a potential danger to a community, she said. Providing names and addresses could lead to some unintended consequences, such as fear of retaliation or vigilante action.
"It could possibly lead to greater difficulty on their part, in terms of reintegrating into the community or genuine efforts at rehabilitation," Cavoukian said in an interview.
"These are the concerns that come to mind, in my mind. Because if there isn't an enhancement of public safety, but there may be these negative consequences, then it might also lull the public into a false sense of security."
The Alberta website warns the public that the information should "under no circumstances" be used to "injure, harass, or commit a criminal act" against any of the listed individuals.
Such websites are far more common in the United States. About 50 American states publicly list high-risk offenders, as well as federal authorities.
"I think it serves several symbolic purposes, but it's not proven that it affects public safety," said Martin Horn, a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York and former commissioner of the city's Department of Corrections.
"I think there's a logical argument to be made that it might, but I don't think that it's been demonstrated statistically that it does."