If there ever was a government program in need of an overhaul, it’s Maine’s online sex offender registry. Flawed from its inception, the online registry has suffered from providing not enough information to be really valuable while at the same time offering too much.

Its scope was too broad, providing names and perpetually updated addresses of people convicted of crimes that may or may not suggest that they are likely to re-offend. At the same time, the registry lacks the kind of detail about the underlying offenses that would really be helpful for community members who are judging the risk posed by a neighbor on the list.

The system was shaken by a state supreme court decision two years ago, which found that the registry amounted to a kind of double punishment. That led lawmakers to amend the law to create a way to get off the list for people who were retroactively added to the registry when it was created and have had clean records since.

One of the 304 people who have been removed from the list, Larry L. Smart, was arrested last week for possessing child pornography, leading to more calls for revising the registry. Two bills introduced this session that would further tweak the registry appear to be headed nowhere as the Legislature winds toward adjournment.When they next try to tackle this mess, lawmakers should keep a few points in mind.

The purpose of the registry is to give people information they can use to protect themselves. And when it comes to information, too much can be as bad as too little. A man who dated a 13-year-old girl when he turned 18, 20 years ago, may be a registered sex offender. Neighbors who know just what’s on the list could fail to protect themselves from other, more immediate threats.

No system is going to be perfect. There is no exact science to predict who is going to commit new offenses. Some classes of sex offenders, such as fixated pedophiles, call for special attention, but others will slip through any warning system.

Programs that have proven to be effective, such as extended periods of probation, monitoring and mandatory treatment, should be the first line of defense for a community looking to defend itself from a repeat offense by a sex offender. A registry of the most dangerous offenders, especially if it reveals characteristics such as the age and sex of the victim, and his or her relationship to the perpetrator, can also serve an important public safety function.

The current registry is not there yet.


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