Convicted sex offenders who live in Montgomery County soon may have a lot more people watching out for them: Internet users.
A few clicks of the mouse can order up a list--delivered via e-mail within 10 days--that will show if anyone recently convicted of a sex crime lives in your Montgomery neighborhood, works in your office or cares for your children.
"A sex offender is a scary and dangerous person," said Montgomery police Lt. Tim Delaney, whose detective unit monitors the list. "The legislature has voted that it's important to provide this information to the public."
The state's Web site listing offenders statewide isn't operating yet. But the names of Montgomery's sex offenders can be ordered online by clicking on the county police department's Web site at www.co.mo.md.us/services/police/ysd/ysdhome.htm and sending an e-mail that includes the reason for requesting the list to the department's youth division.
So far, about 150 people have requested the Montgomery list of 114 names, and police say they hope the Internet order form will make it even more accessible to the public.
Those who have requested it include PTA officials, a woman who wanted to know if there were any sex offenders living near her or in any neighborhood where her daughter might visit and a Bethesda woman who wanted to check whether the list included a man who had sexually abused her daughter, Delaney said.
The list includes each offender's home address, employer's name, work address and convictions. Detectives check at least twice a year that the offender is still living and working at the address he or she provided, Delaney said.
But the list does have its limits. Only people convicted of molesting a child after Oct. 1, 1995, are required to register with the Child Sexual Offender Registry. Those convicted of other sex crimes or repeated offenses must register for incidents that occurred after July 1, 1997. Sex offenders are required to register annually for 10 years following their conviction, and those convicted of certain "aggravated" offenses may be required to register annually for life.
Such Internet lists grew out of Megan's Law, which was passed in New Jersey following the 1994 murder of a girl by a man down the street with a history, unknown to his neighbors, of sex crimes. In 1996, Congress required that local communities develop their own ways to register sex offenders and notify those with whom he or she may have contact.
Police say the information is helpful to keep track of pedophiles, who have an especially high recidivism rate.
But some defense lawyers and privacy advocates say the lists are misguided and question whether public access to them does more harm than good.
Rebecca Nitkin, a Rockville lawyer and former child protective services investigator in Prince George's County, said the release of such lists can lead to hysteria.
"You just can't list the person's name and say he's a sex offender without explaining the circumstances of the offense," Nitkin said.
Rockville defense lawyer Wendy Satin called the publication of sex offenders' names and home addresses "frightening," saying the focus on preventing sex crimes should be on more treatment for offenders.
"Everyone wants children to be protected," Satin said. "It's the right reason, but the wrong means. . . . We have to know the people our children have contact with and trust our own instincts about people. There are bad people out there who haven't been labeled 'bad' yet."
Indeed, state officials worry that people may put too much faith in the list if they see no sex offenders in their own neighborhoods, said Leonard A. Sipes Jr., spokesman for the Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services.
Because most sex offenses are never reported, Sipes said, most offenders will never be registered. Statistics also show that children are at far greater risk of being sexually abused by someone they know than by the stranger down the street, Sipes said.
"I'd say there are literally hundreds of sex offenders within a 15-minute drive of most addresses receiving The Washington Post," Sipes said. "Just because someone sees one or two or no sex offenders within their Zip code, we don't want them to get a false sense of security. We want people to [use the list to] get educated on the issue and talk to their children."
The Montgomery school system automatically is notified every time someone is added to the list, Delaney said, but it is up to school officials to decide what to do with the information.
Schools spokesman Brian J. Porter said that the school system sends out sex offenders' names to all principals and supervisors via internal e-mail and that the principals of schools serving an offender's neighborhood also are contacted directly.
Porter said Bethesda-area schools were alerted Nov. 16 that a 27-year-old man living in Chevy Chase had been convicted of a fourth-degree sex crime. Principals are required by the school system "to take reasonable steps" to protect their students from the person, which usually includes checking that the offender is not a teacher, substitute teacher, volunteer, chaperon, coach or any other kind of school visitor, Porter said.
Anyone without access to the Internet may request and receive the list by sending a letter to the Montgomery County Police Department, Records Division, at 2350 Research Blvd., Rockville, Md., 20850. Include your name, address, phone number, the last five digits of your Social Security number and the reason you want the list.