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Gov't to Set up Computerized Database of Sex Offenders

By Peter Baker
The Washington Post

The federal government will set up a national computer registry within the next six months to keep track of at least 250,000 sex offenders, an effort to prevent rapists and molesters from simply crossing state lines to terrorize unsuspecting communities, President Clinton announced Saturday.

Earlier this summer, Clinton pledged to find a way to tie state databases into a single system so that authorities can obtain information instantaneously on sexual predators from across the country.

"This national registry sends a simple message to those who would prey on our children - the law will follow you wherever you go," Clinton said in his weekly radio address.

He unveiled the program on the eve of his departure for the Democratic National Convention in a speech in which he sought to burnish his crime-fighting credentials and present himself again as a champion of children. He also highlighted other law-and-order actions during his first term, including passage of gun control laws and legislation to put more police officers on the street.

The announcement capped a week of carefully orchestrated events intended to provide political momentum heading into the convention that will renominate him and to draw the focus away from his Republican challenger, Robert J. Dole. In rapid succession last week, Clinton signed bills raising the minimum wage, expanding health care access and revamping the welfare system, then moved to regulate the tobacco industry for the first time.

The sex offender registry plan effectively pre-empts bipartisan legislation moving through Congress that would have achieved the same goal. A Clinton aide said the president does not need new legislation to start the system on his own.

The Dole campaign was quick Saturday to accuse Clinton once again of political plagiarism. "Bill Clinton has proved to be the Xerox president," said Dole campaign spokeswoman Christina Martin. "For the second time on the same subject, he has actually lifted a page out of the 1992 Republican platform."

Prodded by the federal government, all 50 states have enacted laws requiring sex offenders to register with authorities, though not all have established computerized tracking systems yet.

In May, Clinton signed a bill requiring that communities be notified when sex offenders released from prison move in, a measure dubbed Megan's Law after a murdered 7-year-old New Jersey girl whose alleged killer was a convicted molester.

Under Saturday's plan, the FBI will quickly set up a registry on an interim basis by linking it to an existing computer system that will collect information provided by the states. By mid-1999, the registry will become part of a broader law enforcement computer network containing more sophisticated records, including fingerprint matching, mug shots and DNA information. The administration is earmarking $25 million to help states set up or improve their databases.

Associate Attorney General John R. Schmidt said the registry will be available not only to law enforcement officers but also to anyone else authorized by individual state laws, such as licensing agencies conducting background checks on applicants for day-care or teaching jobs.

Civil liberties advocates have complained that such a registry could violate the constitutional rights of people who have properly completed their sentences, preventing them from finding work or even a place to live. Lawsuits challenging state registries have been filed in New York, New Jersey, Alaska and elsewhere.

But Clinton said the high recidivism rate among sex criminals required such a step.