By Victor O'Brien

The Cove Herald

Texas' sex offender registry received upgrades this year allowing residents to track offenders through workplaces, schools and e-mail notifications, but offender advocates say the upgrades downgrade chances of rehabilitation.

"Rick," who declined to have his name published, is self-employed and a sex offender. If he wanted to find a new job, he believes it would be more difficult.

The Texas Department of Public Safety revamped its sex offender registry at a cost of $1.2 million over the last year, making public where offenders work, go to school and offering e-mail notifications for people to track when an offender moves into their zip code or when a change is made to an offender's record.

"It's just another ploy. It's just another way to ruin your life after you've paid your debt to society," Rick said.

Rick believes the addition of work information makes companies even less likely to hire sex offenders and puts currently employed offenders at risk of being discovered and losing their jobs. The listing could also make them a target for physical harm, Rick said.

DPS added these features because they were required to by a federal law, the Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act, said Tela Mange, DPS spokeswoman. The features were rolled out in varying form over the last year, but DPS announced them all three weeks ago in a news release.

The e-mail notifications will help victims prepare and adjust when offenders are released on parole or probation, giving them the benefit of some control, said Lisa Hatfield, Killeen police victims assistance coordinator.

Hatfield thinks the features give victims a chance to make their families and communities safer with greater knowledge to protect themselves. Hatfield said its too early to tell if the benefit of the changes is greater than the risk it poses to offenders.

Lt. Daniel Austin of Copperas Cove police thinks the notifications are a benefit, but also thinks DPS needs to publicize the registry more.

"Some people have no clue that the DPS has that service online," he said.

The issue is not just the information on the registry, but not having effective risk levels that tell searchers how dangerous an offender is, said Mary Sue Molnar, founder of Texas Voices, an offender advocacy group.

"The laws are very, very broad. People assume everyone who is required to register is a dangerous violent predator. That's not true, so listing the place of employment on a register has required many of our people to lose their jobs," said Molnar, whose son is a sex offender.

Texas Voices represents a variety of what she describes as harmless offenders such as the a 19-year-old boy who is arrested for having sex with his 16-year-old girlfriend. The laws keep released offenders from getting jobs and providing for their families, she said.

Her solution is to reduce the list to include the most dangerous and highest risk offenders, then information like employment will not be as detrimental and will affect only the worst offenders.

"If there is someone who is a registered sex offender living down the street from you, would you rather (have) them home alone, unemployed, desperate and homeless, or have a job, afford probation, treatments fees and counseling?" Molnar asked. "People can't be productive members of society without a job. This won't allow them to work."

Mange agrees offenders could lose their jobs or be the victims of harassment, but DPS must follow federal laws.

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