The problem with feel-good public safety initiatives like the proposed Violent Offenders Registry is that they lull us into a false sense that we're doing something legitimate to protect ourselves from harm.
The state Legislature, once again borrowing from a tragedy involving a child, has proposed setting up a list of people who've served time for violent crimes. The bill, dubbed "Brittany's Law," is similar in design and purpose to the sex offender registries that became popular two decades ago.
Like the state’s 18-year-old sex offender registry, this bill would require violent felons to register with the state. Those subject to registration would be anyone convicted under the "violent offender" section of state Penal Law -- which covers such crimes as murders, assaults, kidnappings, terrorism and gang violence.
The information available to the public from the registry could include the person's name, address, photo and information about the crime he or she committed. How much information that would be available on each subject would be determined by ranking, again similar to sex offender registries, based on a subjective determination of the felon's propensity to commit more violent crimes, with Level 1 being the lowest and Level 3 the highest.
The crime upon which this bill is based is the 2009 murder of 12 year-old Brittany Passalacqua and her mother, Helen Buchel. Their killer, John Edward Brown, was on early release from prison after serving most of a 3-year sentence for violently assaulting his infant daughter.
Supporters of the registry claim Brittany's Law could have prevented their deaths by alerting the victims to the presence of a killer living among them.
It's true, it would be nice to know when a violent felon, like a sex offender, is living in the neighborhood. But in reality, how many of us regularly check the lists to find out? The new registry wouldn’t take into consideration the fact that many violent crimes are committed by people under duress, or influenced by alcohol and other circumstances that might be precipitated by a single incident. In other words, a lot of violent people in your neighborhood, just like people with a propensity to abuse children or commit sexual assaults, wouldn't necessarily appear on this list unless they’d been caught and convicted. The registry also doesn't take into consideration the fact that most victims of sexual or domestic violence already know their assailants. So how extra-safe would this list really make the rest of us?
Several studies conducted over the years have questioned the effectiveness of such registries in preventing sex crimes, while other studies have challenged the validity of the recidivism rankings in assessing individuals’ propensity to repeat their crimes. Some studies have found that registries compel offenders to get treatment and behave themselves, while others have shown being on the list stresses out some offenders, drives them into hiding, discourages them from getting treatment and/or compels them to commit more crimes.
The registries do often allow police to keep better tabs on individuals with criminal backgrounds, which could lead to quicker identification of suspects in new crimes. But knowing someone's address doesn't mean their whereabouts is known 24 hours a day, to police or potential victims.
There's also the question of whether a person should be subject to registration after they've served their sentence. Even when a person is off the list, either by timing out or having their conviction overturned, the Internet would make their listing a permanent one.
For police and certain victims of violence, having a registry of violent offenders could provide a useful tool. So it's probably not a bad thing for the Legislature to set up.
But for most of us, it might make us feel like we're a little safer. But actually, we're all still just as safe ... and all still just as vulnerable.