What if you could prevent your sister, your daughter or yourself from falling into an abusive relationship with a simple click of the mouse?
That's what one Nevada lawmaker hopes to accomplish with a new Internet registry featuring the names and criminal backgrounds of the state's domestic violence offenders.
- Just another "get votes" action. Why not one registry with all criminals on it? Why create 10 million different registries?
Assemblyman James Ohrenschall plans to introduce a bill to create the registry during next year's session, assuming voters return him to office.
The goal is to provide ready access to information that might save someone from a relationship with a person who has a history of abusive behavior, Ohrenschall said.
"I know it's a cliché, but it seems like it's a lot easier not to get into an abusive relationship than it is to get out of one," he said. "Domestic violence hurts so many families, and it scars children for life."
The 35-year-old assemblyman said the registry could be operated at a minimal cost to the state. The information it would contain is already available to the public, though it's not always easy to find, he said.
"I haven't spoken to one woman who doesn't like the idea, and I haven't spoken to one man who has a sister or a daughter who doesn't like the idea," said Ohrenschall, who was elected in 2006 to the Assembly seat his mother, Genie, held for 12 years.
He said the meat of the measure has yet to be written, but he is leaning toward limiting the registry to those convicted of felony domestic battery.
The list would not include those convicted in other states or those convicted in Nevada before the registry is created.
"I think we might run into some constitutional problems on retroactivity," he said.
Those aren't the only potential problems, according to Gary Peck, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union in Nevada. Such a registry is ripe for all manner of abuses, he said.
"It's unclear how people get on the list. Are they really people who are high risk of repeating this kind of behavior or not?" Peck said. "In general, this is just a bad idea. This is one of those feel-good measures that's really not going to accomplish much of anything."
Victim advocacy groups also see a plan fraught with problems.
Sue Meuschke, executive director of the Nevada Network Against Domestic Violence, said it is hard to comment without first seeing the finished bill. But she worries about how much the registry would cost to set up and maintain.
"It's not just the money, though. It's so many things," Meuschke said.
In some cases, for example, the victim is the one who gets arrested and ends up pleading guilty to domestic violence, Meuschke said. "So who's going to be on this list?"
Joni Kaiser, executive director of the Reno-based Committee to Aid Abused Women, said the proposed registry seems to address subjects her organization generally supports, namely accountability for the perpetrators and prevention of future abuse.
But it's too soon to say whether Ohrenschall can count on their support.
"We'd certainly have to see the bill, and we'd have to see the financial note," Kaiser said.
There's just too little money to go around in Nevada these days to support anything that might jeopardize the shrinking pot of funds that provides direct services to abused women, she said.
Near as Ohrenschall can tell, Nevada would be the first state to create a domestic violence registry.
The idea was edited out of a bill in California earlier this year after concerns were raised by the members of various policy committees.
A measure in Pennsylvania targeting "domestic violence predators" is stuck in the judiciary panel until lawmakers return to work in September.
"That bill is not dead. It's sort of floating in the ether," Ohrenschall said.
The idea for his registry came after he talked to counselors from a crisis call center in Northern Nevada.
Asked if he has ever seen the effects of abuse firsthand, Ohrenschall said, "It's hard to find any people who haven't been touched by domestic violence in some way."
He wouldn't elaborate.
Olfelia Monje knows more about the scale of the problem than most. In three years as a victim advocate for the Metropolitan Police Department, she was called in on thousands of cases of domestic violence.
She said some victims could have avoided abuse altogether if there had been a registry in place to warn them about the violent people they unwittingly invited into their lives.
As Monje said, and crime statistics suggest, many abusers are likely to repeat their crimes.
"I hate to say it, but it's hard to teach an old dog new tricks," she said.
But Monje, now a law student at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, also has some concerns about Ohrenschall's idea, particularly when it comes to who might be left off the list.
She said people charged with felony domestic violence often see their cases negotiated down to misdemeanors that would not land them on the registry.
Some repeat offenders never face felony charges, also because of the high number of cases that result in plea agreements, she said.
On the other hand, Monje acknowledged that a registry of misdemeanor offenders would be far too large, complicated and expensive to work.
One day, Ohrenschall would like to see a national registry of all domestic violence offenders. He also supports Internet-searchable databases of other court documents that might be in the public interest.
"Eventually, it would be good if all public records were as easy to find as me going on the county (assessor's) Web site and looking up the value of your house," he said. "Shouldn't public records be public? Shouldn't they be accessible?"
But Peck called that a "slippery slope," one that could lead to government registries for every offense under the sun, a list for everyone and everyone on a list.
The ACLU would prefer to see the government devote its resources to programs and groups that can "actually reduce instances of domestic violence," Peck said.
Even if the registry idea goes nowhere, Monje commends Ohrenschall for trying.
"I really praise him for at least coming up with a plan to address this huge problem. I think it's always a good thing when people are being proactive. With any new idea there are going to be a million cons. I don't know what the answer is."
Contact reporter Henry Brean at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-383-0350.