County law enforcement laud advantages of new sex offender database

Some San Mateo County law enforcement officials are touting a recently launched website for providing the public with easier access to information on where sex offenders reside and offering several advantages to a similar state Megan’s Law website.

Launched by the San Mateo County Sheriff’s Office, the OffenderWatch database presents the same information available on a site for Megan’s Law — which requires sex offenders to register with local law enforcement — but it aims to be more user-friendly and offers a few distinguishing features.

Among those is giving users the ability to receive instant, real-time alerts about new sex offender registrations near their home, work or school addresses. But some have been critical of public sex offender databases, and OffenderWatch’s operator acknowledges that information on the site may sometimes be incomplete.

Sheriff’s Office spokeswoman Rebecca Rosenblatt said her agency contracted with the Watch Systems company to offer OffenderWatch so users would have a fast and easy option for accessing information about sex offenders in their communities.

“This is the same information that’s always been available under Megan’s Law,” Rosenblatt said. “But we’re making it easier to access. It takes no work or time to figure out how to use this site.”

Rosenblatt said the Sheriff’s Office often receives phone calls from people asking if there are sex offenders registered in specific neighborhoods, and OffenderWatch provides that information without the need for a phone call. San Mateo Police Chief Susan Manheimer said her department receives similar calls, and it was able to save costs by implementing a similar database that allowed personnel to spend less time fielding information requests.

Watch Systems spokesman Joey Gauthier said the system’s ability to provide instant alerts of new offender registrations is an important advantage over the Megan’s Law site.

“The old way, you needed to have photographic memory to tell whether there’d been changes,” Gauthier said, “Now you get an email. When law enforcement makes a change, the public knows within 24 hours.”

Gauthier noted, however, that sex offender registries only reveal convictions, and under California law, not all types of sex offenses appear on public websites. According to the Megan’s Law site, about 25 percent of registered sex offenders are legally excluded from public disclosure, and in some cases, offenders may apply for exclusion from public disclosure.

Being included on a sex offender website might also prevent some from re-integrating into society, and could increase their chances of re-offending, according to some experts.

Marina Bell, a doctoral student in criminology who’s taught college courses to inmates at San Quentin State Prison, says research has shown that criminal records and stigmatization can make it hard for recently released offenders to build new, “legitimate” lives, which is most often what keeps them from re-offending.

But Rosenblatt said such issues are beyond the scope of the Sheriff’s Office’s mandate.

“The bottom line is that we’re required by law to make this information available to the public, and we have a responsibility to make it simple and easy for people to access,” Rosenblatt said.

To access OffenderWatch, visit www.smcsheriff.com and click “Sex Offenders Search.”Bay Area NewsOffenderWatchPeninsulaSan Mateo County Sheriff’s OfficeWatch Systems

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