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Sex Offender Monday: Match.com, Minnesota and Mayhem

Match.com’s decision to scrub members against the national sex offender registry makes sense, unless you take a close look at the current efficacy of state sex offender registries

Sex Offender Monday: Match.com, Minnesota and Mayhem

U.S.A.—In direct response to a lawsuit filed last week by a Los Angeles woman who said she was sexually assaulted by a man she met on Match.com, the president of the popular dating site said this weekend that members will be scrubbed against the national sex offender list starting in two to three months. Match.com had flirted with the idea of screening members against such databases before, but had decided that "their historical unreliability has always led us to conclude against it."

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However, conversations undertaken over the past few days convinced the company that, despite the fact that it lists clear safety advice on its site, the time had come to revisit that decision.

“Improved technology and an improved database now enables a sufficient degree of accuracy to move forward with this initiative, despite its continued imperfection,” president Mandy Ginsberg told the Associated Press Sunday in an email. Match.com is based in Dallas and owned by New York-based IAC/Interactivecorp, whose chairman and CEO is Barry Diller. IAC/Interactivecorp also owns Chemistry.com and OKCupid, which it acquired for $50 million in February.

According to the Los Angeles Times, Mark L. Webb, the attorney for the woman who said she was assaulted, “said he will ask a Los Angeles County Superior Court judge for a temporary injunction barring [Match.com] from signing up more members until his client's demands are met. He said his client wants the site to screen members to determine if they are sexual predators.”

It would not have taken much digging to find out the troubling history of the man the woman met on Match.com, and then met in person once at a West Hollywood, California café before allowing him to return to her home, where she said he forced her to engage in oral sex before fleeing the apartment.

A quick search of Google returned results showing that as recently as 2009, the accused man, Alan Paul Wurtzel, pleaded no contest to six counts of sexual battery and was sentenced to six years' probation, mandatory sex offender registration, and one year in jail by L.A. Superior Court Judge James Otto, who also ordered Wurtzel to pay a $32,000 fine, make a $10,000 contribution to the California Coalition Against Sexual Assault, and undergo 104 sessions of psychological treatment.

Despite its promise to scrub against the national sex offender database, Match.com still insists that people need to exercise extreme vigilance when dating online, just as they would when dating offline.

"It is critical that this effort does not provide a false sense of security to our members," Match.com told CNET. "With millions of members, and thousands of first dates a week, Match.com, like any other large community, cannot guarantee the actions of all its members. Match.com is a fantastic service, having changed the lives of millions of people through the relationships and marriages it has given rise to, but people have to exercise common sense and prudence with people they have just met, whether through an online dating service or any other means."

The technology website added that the very structure of the national registry—which “pulls together information from the 50 states and other U.S. territories and lets users search for sex offenders by name as well as location”—makes personal vigilance a necessity.

“Since the registry relies on coordinating data from a variety of different local sources,” CNET added, “Match.com is cautioning that these types of checks can still be highly flawed.”

An article published in the Minneapolis Star Tribune this weekend reinforces the argument that states are themselves struggling to get the parameters and structure of their own sex offender registries in order. Under the 2006 Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act, states were required to create sex offender registries which would then be coordinated with the national registry in order to ensure that sex offenders could not cross state lines in order to escape detection.

Unfortunately, Minnesota, like so many other states is experiencing nothing but headaches with its sex offender registry.

“Across Minnesota,” wrote Paul McEnroe for the Star Tribune, “prosecutors, judges and mental health experts are struggling with the same dilemma—and now some key legislators are taking notice. They say the state's commitment process for sex offenders is deeply flawed because it lacks a middle ground where they could cull low-risk offenders from the most violent psychopaths, housing them and treating them at lower cost to taxpayers.”

The cost to the state is huge. “With more than 650 offenders under commitment, at a cost of $120,000 per person, budget-conscious lawmakers are now confronted with assuring voters they can protect public safety while finding more creative and cheaper ways to evaluate and care for offenders,” the paper reported.

And Minnesota is far from alone. Sunday, the Denver Post published an editorial entitled, “Modify National Sex Offender Act,” in which the editors noted, “States are struggling both financially and philosophically in complying with well-intended federal legislation to create a national sex-offender registry.”

The mandates, which are required by the Walsh Act, are due to be operational by this June. States that do not meet the deadline will face “federal grant reductions that will hurt their ability to fund victim assistance and other court programs.”

The editorial continues, “Efforts to create a national system would have had a much higher probability of success if states had been intimately involved in the creation of such a system.

“That wasn't the case, and states are struggling with the law's mandates. Some say their own systems are more stringent and effective than the federal system. Others are concerned about the rules regarding the inclusion of juveniles on the registry.

“Yet others worry about the costs associated with realigning their systems in ways they don't agree with. For some states, it may be worth seeing a 10 percent reduction in a particular federal grant rather than incurring even greater costs to make changes they don't agree with.”

The entire editorial is worth reading, as it contains some reasonable suggestions about ways the federal law could be amended to ensure that a workable national registry can be maintained.

The editors concluded, ““Keeping track of dangerous sex offenders nationwide is an important public safety goal. We hope federal lawmakers will modify this well-intentioned legislation so that objective becomes a reality.”

Whether Congress is listening remains to be seen, but the Match.com case illustrates that when situations like the one that happened to the Los Angeles woman occur, the knee jerk reaction by companies will be to do what Match.com did and place a responsibility on the national registry that it may not be ready to fulfill. And then there is the overall fairness of the national and state registries in making sure that low level, non-violent offenders are not punished by being labeled sex offenders for five years, ten years or the rest of their lives, depending on their "tier," and also that people who should not be on a sex offender list in the first place—which happens in Wisconsin—are stricken, or that no more young people wind up comitting suicide rather than spend 25 years on a sex offender registry for consensual sex as a teen. 

Victimizing people unfairly is one way to prosecute a war on sex, but it is bound to fail, as evidenced by the two [of many] articles mentioned here, neither of which was written by the adult press but rather by mainstream editors who have their ears presumably pressed close to the ground.






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Tom Hymes

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