By Samantha Allen
LOWELL -- A newly adopted law established this month to release information on moderate-risk sex offenders online is on hold until the state can determine whether it's fair and constitutional.
State Supreme Judicial Court Associate Justice Ralph D. Gants temporarily put a hold on the law Thursday when he reviewed a request for an injunction from the Committee for Public Counsel Services, an appointed group tasked with overseeing the legal representation of indigent persons in civil and criminal matters. The case must now be reviewed by the Judicial Supreme Court bench in August for an official ruling, and stops thousands of convicted felons' names, faces and addresses from going up on the Web.
The law, originally drafted by Democratic Westford state Rep. James Arciero and signed by Gov. Deval Patrick July 12, was intended to make details only previously available through local police departments readily published online on the Sex Offender Registry Board Website. Information is already listed there for Level 3 offenders -- considered to be at the highest risk for committing their crimes again -- while Level 2 persons, of moderate risk, are not.
In reviewing the counsel group's argument, Gants determined there is "inequity" in the law, which many local advocates considered a victory for their cause just a few weeks ago. Gants, however, said he believes the committee failed to prove their argument that the law is "unconstitutional," though he agreed the ruling could cause "irreparable harm" by subjecting the offenders to potential public discrimination.
The counsel-services group, which did not return calls for comment before press deadline, said in their request this law "for the first time ever" strived to place information of some 6,000 convicted persons in the virtual world when the SORB already ruled the release of these individuals' personal information was not "in the interest of public safety."
Laurie Myers, a Chelmsford victims advocate who founded the group Community Voices, said she is disappointed with the order this week, noting she's been pushing for the bill for the last nine years.
"Ever since our law went into effect, it is every single day being challenged in the courts," she said.
Myers noted putting these records online not only informs the public but takes the burden off local police officials who must retrieve information for individuals when they come to their community station and make a formal request for those records.
"And by the time you get the copies, it's already inaccurate information," she said. "It's just not up with the times."
Arciero said Friday he is optimistic this will be resolved in the advocates' favor next month, with some "level twos" already being posted online since the law was briefly put into place. He said it would bring the state closer to complying with the federal Adam Walsh Child Protect and Safety Act as well.
"My feeling is that we need to empower our citizens to make their own judgment calls," Arciero said. "So with the information provided to citizens, we are empowering them and allowing them to keep their neighborhood safe. ... You know, knowledge is power."
In Lowell, where there are 84 registered Level 3 sex offenders and nearly 200 classified in the Level 2 tier, Deputy Police Superintendent Arthur Ryan said he'd like to see this information released digitally.
"The method that was in place to get this information simply served to discourage neighborhood residents from acquiring the information that they have a right to obtain," he said.
Ryan added while the department receives few requests from concerned citizens, they still deserve easy access. He referred to the current system as putting up "road blocks" for residents, but pointed out sex offenders are people who have "paid their debt to society" and deserve to carry on with their lives. In Lowell at least, he said the Police Department is careful to monitor them and to keep that in mind.
Myers said she is hopeful this law will come back to life, adding in the mean time, states like New York, Maine and New Hampshire keep their Level 2 sex offender information public. Now Bay Staters may not have access to the records until at least the fall, she said.
"The Supreme Judicial Court has come down on this before," she added. "And I don't think we have an uphill battle."
Follow Samantha Allen on Twitter @Sallen_89.