|Correction’s Play Role In Keeping Sex Offenders Off Social Networking Sites|
|By Art Bowker, Cybercrime Specialist|
Recently, a federal court struck down a Louisiana state law that prohibited sex offenders convicted of crimes involving minors from “using or accessing of social networking sites websites, chat rooms, and peer-to-peer networks .” The ruling found that the law impacted the First Amendment and was unconstitutionally vague. The court further concluded that it could not be cured through administrative regulations. The law covered both sex offenders under supervision and those who had completed their sentence. Additionally the social media definition was extremely broad and could have been interpreted to include the court’s own website. Needless to say the law had some major deficiencies. Louisiana appears posed to give it another go, correcting the deficiencies noted in the decision. The question is should they?
The reality is that social media is so intertwined with living in today’s society that any prohibition is sure to have a negative impact on whether an offender can get a job, find needed services, etc. But then again the dangerousness of an unmonitored sex offender using the Internet is very real. What to do? I read an interesting piece by Eric Goldman about this issue and the pitfalls of the Louisiana law. One thing that he noted was:
The ruling doesn’t require social media sites to allow sex offenders on their sites, and they can still use the Adam Walsh/KIDS Act database to block known sex offender aliases. (Of course sex offenders may not properly report all of their aliases, a general deficiency of the self-reporting database approach). Thus, striking down this law doesn’t immediately open up all of the Internet to the sex offenders. Nevertheless, it does mean that they can use the Internet without inadvertently committing a crime.”
This got me thinking what if more sites followed Facebook’s policy on not allowing sex offenders on their sites. Could enacting laws that prohibit sex offenders who use a site against the user agreement be one piece to this legislative quagmire? Facebook’s policy no doubt came into play because of the bad press some social networking sites got over sex offenders trawling the various social networking sites. They simply didn’t want sex offenders joining up like they had on other sites. I understand why they have this prohibition. They allow minors to join, age 13-17, and wanted a “safe” environment. But what about other sites, particularly those might specifically cater to minors? Do they have such a ban? I was shocked to find out they do not. The user agreements of the big gaming sites, X-Box Online ; Playstation ; and Nintendo  do not ban sex offenders from joining or participating. Even Disney’s Club Penguin , does not have a prohibition against sex offenders joining the site. In fairness, these sites do bar activities that are illegal, just not individuals that have been convicted of engaging in such activities, such as sex crimes.
So the sites that are gaming in nature and/or cater to minors do not prohibit sex offenders on their sites. Yet they serve no legitimate purpose for offender reintegration. After all, there is no employment services section on X-Box Online, at least not in the real world. I don’t think giving sex offenders “recreation” in isolation, filled with role playing as well as access to minors is a legitimate reason for allowing them on gaming sites. Interesting, Facebook, which is interconnected with not only individuals but businesses, education, causes, etc. bars sex offender from its site, because a portion of its members are minors. Don’t get me wrong. I understand Facebook’s reason and understand the risk. But there does seem to be something a miss here. Should sites start barring sex offenders from their sites in total? I think it would start with those which have minors on them and would quickly expand to the entire Internet. After all, with the exception of adult oriented sites, there are few sites in the mainstream that would want to be known as one of the few locations that allows sex offenders to be members. But if we allow legislatures to make the decisions you are likely to get sites that are important in rehabilation prohibited as well.
Legislatures need to start working with corrections department on what is the best way to manage cyber-risk. Corrections obviously has got to step up its game but I think they can come to terms with cyber-risk management. If they don’t who then? Who is in the best position to judgement offender risk? Probation/parole departments time to get into the 21st Century and quick belly aching about laws being passed without consideration of the rehabiliative impact.
Additionally, the focus needs to be on sex offenders under a correctional supervision not those who have completed their sentence. I also think states would then be better served by providing community corrections with the tools needed to manage the risk posed by sex offender’s online. This means giving officers the ability to restrict sites that pose a risk for re-offending behavior. It also means allowing officers to restrict hardware and software used by offenders to that which can be monitored and/searched. States should also provide the legal framework for officers to install monitoring software and to be able to conduct computer searches. States should also provide the resources, namely training, software, and hardware to officers for this to occur.
Providing blanket restrictions that just tie the hands of officers and offenders is bad policy. (Please note I am talking about offenders in the community. Note those behind bars. See Why Does Your Facebook Profile have an Inmate Number? ) Let those who are experienced in corrections make decisions on managing cyber-risk. Give them guidance but not legal mandates.
Yes, I know there was provisions in the Louisiana law that allowed officers to grant permission but few if any officers are going to go out on a limb to grant an exemption to a sex offender, particularly when they have no tools to manage risk in the first place. Maybe just maybe, states would be better off in directing their corrections to come up with a cyber-supervision policy for their review and approval. I think the American Probation and Parole Association Issue paper  is a good place to start the discussion (disclaimer, I had a hand in writing it!). There are ways to manage cyber-risk. In some cases, such as gaming sites, officers are right to prohibit access. Access to other sites, particularly those that directly impact employment need to be managed not prohibited.
I also would avoid passing restrictions on individuals that have already served their sentence. I have no issue with them having to report Internet identifers as part of sex offender registration but barring them from sections of the Internet, without realizing how interconnected the world and the Internet is is fool-hearty. For repeat sex offenders, particularly those who use the Internet as a tool for exploitation, consider mandatory sentencing that precludes them from being in the real world, let alone the cyber world. Okay, time to find my cigar.
Art Bowker is the author of the soon to be released book The Cybercrime Handbook for Community Corrections: Managing Offender Risk in the 21st Century, publisher Charles C Thomas Pub Ltd. He has over 26 years experience in both law enforcement and corrections at the state and federal level. In 2008, Art was the International President of the High Technology Crime Investigation Association (HTCIA). This professional non-profit organization is the largest of its kind devoted to the prevention, investigation, and prosecution of crimes involving advanced technologies (htcia.org). Art is also member of the American Probation and Parole Association (APPA) and is a member of their Technology Committee, He has a Master of Corrections degree from Kent State University. Follow Art on Twitter.com at: (http://twitter.com/Computerpo)
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