Saturday, March 19, 2011

MN - Editorial: A reboot for debate on sex offenders

Original Article

03/18/2011

Legislative auditor's report paves the way for real solutions.

A new, fact-based legislative auditor's report (PDF) is exactly what's needed to reboot Minnesota's long, unproductive debate over its controversial sex offender treatment program.

The state can't afford to ignore this costly, potentially unconstitutional program any longer simply because politicians don't want to be accused of being soft on crime.

For far too long, that fear has dominated decision making for the state's civil commitment program, which detains some sex offenders after they've served their prison sentences.

The consequences of this are part of the reason why the state -- one of 20 with a civil commitment program -- is in a monumental budget bind.

It now costs about $120,000 a year to house and care for each offender -- about three times the cost of incarceration. The number of offenders has also grown dramatically -- from 149 in 2000 to 575 in 2010, and is projected to nearly double by 2020.

The state is running out of room to warehouse offenders and is devoting an ever greater share of its limited resources to a program that has not successfully treated one "patient." No offender in the program has ever been discharged.

Legislators last year took an important first step toward striking a better balance between public safety and financial sanity when they commissioned the report from the respected, nonpartisan Office of the Legislative Auditor.

The report, released about a week ago, is one of the most objective, in-depth analyses of the program to date.

In calm language, it sums up the problem. Compared with other states, Minnesota has a relatively low threshold for civil commitment and a higher bar than most for release.

There's high clinical staff turnover at the Moose Lake and St. Peter facilities, with a high percentage of dollars spent on security and a relatively low percentage going for treatment -- the program's reason for being and the key factor differentiating it from prison from the courts' perspective.

More critically, the report raises a question that should permanently move the state's debate beyond the soft-on-crime fears that have stymied any reform: Is Minnesota really locking up the "worst of the worst?"

The answer, according to the report, is that we don't know. That uncertainty ought to stun politicians and taxpayers, who have footed the program's high bills because it offered the false security that the most dangerous predators were off the streets.

The legislative auditor's report points out that only a small percentage of sex offenders are civilly committed. Through groundbreaking research, it also points out wide disparities around the state -- another constitutional concern.

A higher percentage of sex offenders are civilly committed in the southwest, northwest, central and southeast regions of the state. A lower percentage of sex offenders are committed in the metro and the northeast.

The knee-jerk reaction is to conclude that certain areas are harder on crime than others. A more thoughtful analysis suggests that this is an unwieldy, imprecise system that does not deliver the guarantee of safety that the public believes it does.

Through statistical analysis, the auditor's report ruled out that the regions that commit more offenders are simply dealing with more dangerous individuals.

"Our statistical analysis suggests that some sex offenders being committed may have a lower risk of recidivism than others who are being released from prison,'' the report states.
- Like I've speculated before, they just lock up all offenders, they do not want to take any risks, and civil commitment is nothing more than prison outside of prison.

The auditor's report suggests a number of alternatives to Minnesota's all-or-nothing sex offender civil commitment system.

By advocating a thoughtful look at Texas's halfway houses for some less risky offenders, for example, the report lends credibility to options that haven't yet been considered seriously in Minnesota. That should embolden legislators not only to take up the issue, but to really advocate for change that would reform the system.

Lawmakers' response to the report offers hope that solutions can be found. Rep. Tony Cornish, R-Good Thunder, has proposed legislation that would lower civil commitments by keeping some offenders in prison longer. Rep. Michael Paymar, DFL-St. Paul, is also working on legislation to address the problem.
- Okay, if you keep offenders in prison longer, it may be the same situation.  Are they being sentenced longer because you don't want to deal with any of them, or are they truly dangerous?

The auditor's report has changed the tenor of the debate for the better. Lawmakers now need to seize the momentum and find ways to protect the public -- and the state's financial resources.

The era of politics and fear dominating this debate is coming to a much-needed close.
- I doubt that!


Top court to weigh privacy rights

Original Article

03/18/2011

By William Matthews

Thanks to increasingly sophisticated communications technology and ever-expanding interconnected data bases, even small-town police can run detailed background checks to discover criminals during routine traffic stops.

From their squad cars, officers can tap a network of government and private databases and in a matter of minutes retrieve a wealth of personal data well beyond name, address and driver status -- including Social Security numbers, telephone numbers, past arrests, employment eligibility, immigration status, photos, fingerprints, tattoos, medical conditions and more.
- This is true, and is why, when you are stopped, the officer gets your license and registration and goes back to his car.  So ask yourself this question, why do some states think it is necessary to brand ex-sex offenders drivers licenses with "SEX OFFENDER" or some code in red?

But there's a big problem with this instant access to information: A lot of what's in the databases is wrong, says Marc Rotenberg, president of the Electronic Privacy Information Center.

In a brief filed for a case the U.S. Supreme Court will hear March 21, Rotenberg cataloged the errors he discovered in databases ranging from the FBI's National Crime Information Center to the Homeland Security Department's E-Verify system to intelligence data that commercial vendors collect and sell to federal and state agencies.

The FBI's parent organization, the Justice Department, has cautioned that some of the data that the National Crime Information Center holds is incomplete and inaccurate enough to cause users "to make an incorrect or misguided decision," including unjustified arrests, Rotenberg wrote in the brief filed with the Supreme Court on Jan. 19.

Errors in the E-Verify system are "so egregious and their effects so significant that a federal judge cited them in an opinion granting a temporary restraining order against the Department of Homeland Security," Rotenberg said.

Commercial databases are no better. A check of one man's ChoicePoint record disclosed that the intelligence-collecting firm listed him variously as being a female prostitute in Florida, a prison inmate in Texas, a dealer of stolen goods in New Mexico, a witness tamperer in Oregon, and a sex offender in Nevada.

He was none of those, Rotenberg said, but federal and state law enforcement agencies routinely use error-plagued databases that ChoicePoint and other data brokers compile.

Rotenberg hopes to convince the Supreme Court to overturn the conviction of Jose Tolentino, who was stopped by police at 7:40 p.m. on New Year's Day 2005 for playing music too loudly as he drove down a street in New York City.

A police computer check of motor vehicle records disclosed that Tolentino's driver's license had been suspended at least 10 times, and was suspended at the time he was stopped, so he was arrested.

Tolentino's lawyers argued that Tolentino was stopped despite violating no traffic laws or noise ordinances, therefore the search of his motor vehicle records was illegal.

The Supreme Court is interested because the traffic stop has become a Fourth Amendment case. The amendment protects against unreasonable searches and seizures, and it requires law enforcement authorities to show that they have probable cause before conducting a search.

Rotenberg said communications technology and databases have made unreasonable searches far too easy for police.

In his brief, he argued, "Government databases give police officers access to an extraordinary range of detailed personal information. No longer does the stop of a vehicle provide access to simple information about the status of the car."

"Given a few minutes, police officers can search from their squad cars an increasingly sophisticated network of government data systems and obtain personal information once scattered across municipal, state and federal criminal databases that would never have been available in the context of a routine car stop."

Due to the power of technology, he says, the courts must step in to protect the right to privacy. He quoted Associate Justice Samuel Alito as writing: "We sense a great threat to privacy in modern America; we all believe that privacy is too often sacrificed to other values; we all believe that the threat to privacy is steadily and rapidly mounting; we all believe that action must be taken on many fronts now to preserve privacy."

That was 1971, when Alito was a student at Princeton University, before police could tap vast databases from their squad cars, search through 70 million fingerprints in a matter of minutes, and comb files of digital photos, immigration records, watch lists and commercial intelligence files.

With so much information so readily available, "the risk is real that car stops will increasingly become pretextual because of the opportunity to search a government database for data unrelated to the reason that gave rise to the original stop," Rotenberg wrote.

As for Tolentino, he was charged with first-degree aggravated unlicensed operation of a motor vehicle, and he pleaded guilty in exchange for a sentence of five years' probation.

Later, however, he appealed, arguing that the police stop and the search of his driving record were illegal. When the New York Court of Appeals disagreed, Tolentino took his case to the U.S. Supreme Court, which agreed last November to hear it.


NY - Are sex offender phone apps worth anything?

Video about iPhone/iPad application "Offender Search"

Video Link