Wednesday, May 21, 2008

An extreme lack of anonymity in micropolitan North Dakota, with a little help from the law

A Dan Barry piece in the NYT yesterday featured Detective Amanda McNamee of the Dickinson (North Dakota) Police Dept. , the officer in that small city of 16,000 who keeps track of its 20 registered sex offenders. It's fairly typical of Barry's "This Land" series. What it reminded me of is the lack of anonymity that marks rural (or, technically, for Dickinson, "micropolitan") places -- but writ large for sex offenders. Not only are they more likely to be known because it's a relatively small place and there is that "high density of acquaintanceship" that sociologists write about, they are known as sex offenders because of the notices that appear in the newspaper to inform the public, in boiler-plate text, that a "high-risk offender has moved to town." So, law aids the lack of anonymity in the cases of these men.

In fact, the story implies that most of the offenders are not from Dickinson. Perhaps they move there seeking a fresh start, and/or perhaps because so-called Megan's laws prevent them from living in cities, where it's hard to avoid settling too close to a school or other forbidden location. This makes me wonder about the impact of this lack of information privacy on their rehabilitation prospects, especially in the context of communities so short on social services.

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