FOX UNDERCOVER (MyFoxBoston.com) -- The web-surfing public could soon see the names, photos and addresses of more than 6,000 Massachusetts sex offenders if the state's highest court gives the green light to a measure signed into law this past summer.
The law has been held up from being fully implemented while the issue is battled out in the courts, a battle which culminated with arguments before the state Supreme Judicial Court this morning.
Previously, the only way to find out about Level 2 sex offenders living or working in a community was to physically visit the city or town's police station and ask. Level 2 offenders are those deemed by the state to be at a moderate risk to reoffend.
Information about Level 3 sex offenders – those deemed to be a high risk to re-offend – has been online for years.
Now information is online for about 50 Level 2 offenders who were classified after the law was passed. Already the small group of online Level 2s include several convicted of child sex crimes, people like Joseph Cowen of Fall River, convicted in January of assault of a child with intent to commit rape and rape and abuse of a child.
"I'm seeing that as a parent I want to know this information and other people should have this information. The crimes are disturbing," said Laurie Myers, founder of the victims' rights group Community Voices.
The Committee for Public Counsel Services, the state's public defenders, says the new law shouldn't apply to Level 2 offenders who were classified before the law was passed. The old law stated their information would not be on the Internet.
"Now with no additional individualized consideration, the Legislature has passed an amendment to those laws that eliminates the prohibition and makes it mandatory, and that is what causes the constitutional problems here," attorney Ryan Schiff, representing the public defender's office, told the justices of the SJC.
But the state Attorney General's office, representing the Legislature, says the law was passed with the intent to apply to all Level 2s.
"In the absence of retrospective application, the function of the Internet database for Level 2 offenders would almost be entirely ineffective for years to come because the vast majority of Level 2 offenders would be excluded," said Assistant Attorney General John Stephan.
State Rep. James Arciero, D-Westford, authored the measure that was ultimately passed.
"Tthis information's public right now. If you want to find out about Level 2s in your neighborhood, you can go to the police station and get that information. What this legislation would do is to expand that to allow people to access that information online," Arciero told FOX Undercover outside the court.
Arciero has been arguing for years to post more sex offender online, but his bill gained momentum only after John Burbine, a supposedly low-risk Level 1 offender, was arrested last year and charged with abusing more than a dozen children.
State Rep. Shaunna O'Connell, R-Taunton, supports putting even more information online.
FOX Undercover reporter Mike Beaudet asked her: "Given that Burbine was a Level 1 offender, do you think even more information should be online?"
"Yes," O'Connell replied. "I am a big advocate of all levels, Level 1, 2 and 3 online. If you're classified as a sex offender at any level then you have committed a sex crime, and people should be aware of that information."
But opponents, including attorney Eric Tennen, who represents the Massachusetts Association for the Treatment of Sexual Abusers, disagree.
"It doesn't prevent reoffending," Tennen said. "It doesn't prevent anything in terms of that and it causes harm to the individual. It makes it virtually impossible for them to reintegrate into society."
The SJC typically decides cases within 130 days.
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