By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
Unless you were a law enforcement official, it used to be next to impossible to find out if a person was convicted of a crime in Texas, but a new state database may soon make that information available to anyone who has access to the Internet.
In January, the Texas Department of Public Safety is expected to complete work on a Web site that will allow Internet surfers to access the records of all criminal convictions in the state from the comfort of their own homes for just $1 a search.
Once complete, the site will enable people either to search generally for convicts by ZIP code or to allow searches of individuals by using their name, date of birth, address, or Texas drivers license.
State lawmakers mandated that the Web site be in operation no later than January 1. Unfortunately, they forgot to provide any money to fund it, delaying construction, says Paul Jordan, an analyst in the DPS' special crimes unit.
"We were allocated no funding to go out and have the thing done. So we're having to build this thing from the inside out," Jordan says. "We are painstakingly moving toward that endeavor."
Although he hopes the site will be comprehensive, Jordan says many convictions will not appear on the database because local governments often fail to submit all of their conviction records to the state as required.
"Don't hang your hat on this as the miracle we've all been waiting for, because unless DPS receives the information, that information won't be there," says Jordan. "Locally it would still be there, but this is not to say this is one-stop shopping."
The Web site is part of a new state law that's intended to complement the 1995 passage of "Ashley's laws," which in part required law enforcement agencies to publish lists of registered sexual offenders living in their communities in local newspapers and distribute the lists to area schools.
The laws were created in response to the 1993 abduction and murder of 7-year-old Ashley Estell, whose parents were unaware that her killer, a neighbor in Plano, was a paroled sex offender. Ashley's laws were passed on the theory that parents will be better able to protect their children if they know that sex offenders are living in their midst.
Although information about all criminal convictions, including sex offenses, is already public and available to anyone, most people don't know they have a right to access the information, or they don't know how to obtain it--a task that is next to impossible for the average citizen.
Right now, the only way a person can find out whether another person has a criminal record is to travel from county to county, inserting the person's name into local courthouse computers. Like Ashley's laws, the new Web site is designed to compile information about criminal convictions in one place so that it can be easily obtained.
"As we go into the future, we'll have more and more readily available information," says Jordan, who tracks the state's registered sex offenders.
As the state struggles to get its Internet site on-line, some communities already are making their own journeys into cyberspace.
In May, the Plano police department became one of the first departments to offer its own free Web site, which allows people to search for registered sex offenders by street or name. Since then, the Mesquite and Garland police departments also have gone on-line with their lists of registered sex offenders.
The sites list each offender's name, birthdate, street address excluding the house number, the crime they committed, and the age of the victim, among other details.
Since going on-line in May, Rogers says, the site has received 833 requests for information about sex offenders. By comparison, the Plano police department received just 75 written requests for the same information last year.
"We really see that to be the wave of the future. As more residents get connected to the Internet, that's that many more eyes and ears," says Randy Rogers, a Plano resident and computer technician who created the Plano site at http://notes.plano.gov.
The Plano Web site also allows residents to search for burglaries by street, read police bulletins and news releases, submit "leads" to the police, and link to other crime-prevention and drug-awareness Web sites.
"What we're trying to effect is America's Most Wanted," says Rogers, who is working to help bring other cities on-line.