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Reject Assembly limit on public's access to crime information

posted Jun 3, 2016, 10:58 AM by Resty Manapat

People have a strong interest in information about crime and with good reason: It helps them understand possible risks, the safety of communities, trends in society and more. 

When the media report about a crime, people can consider what happened, who was involved and other details to get a sense of what it means for them. 

Does it fit existing patterns or does the crime possibly represent something new and more worrisome? If violent, was it random or did the victim probably know the perpetrator? Are certain kinds of people being victimized more than others? 

These and many other considerations are important to people, allowing them to maintain a sense of security about where they live. 

Last week, the state Assembly approved a bill that would prevent the public from knowing the identity of victims of violent crimes. 

The bill also would bar the release of identifying information about witnesses to crimes, and since witnesses are crucial to fighting crime and often threatened, additional protections under New Jersey law may be needed. 

But the needs of victims are already balanced with the public's need for this information under the state's Open Public Records Act. 

For example, the act requires consideration for the safety of the victim and victim's family in decisions to release information. 

And prohibitions against releasing victim telephone numbers, Social Security numbers and email or social media addresses are already included in OPRA. 

But the Assembly bill would withhold from the public the identity of every possible or actual victim of a violent crime, whether necessary or not. Police would provide the name of someone charged with assault, for example, but couldn't provide the name of the person accusing them of assault. 

The New Jersey Press Association says the proposed law would not only restrict public access and damage OPRA, but would make it unworkable. 

Under the bill's sweeping language, every request for public information would require the records keeper to consider whether anyone in the documents had ever in their life been a victim of or witness to a violent crime - in other words, any crime involving force or the threat of force. Since that would be impossible, the bill puts into jeopardy all access to public records. 

The proposal also would make New Jersey the restrictive oddball among the states regarding the release of information about crime victims. 

The state-by-state access guide by the nonprofit Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press shows that seven other states join New Jersey in explicitly preventing the release of information that would impair the safety of victims or their families. Another 12 specify restrictions on information if sexual assault was involved (also possible in New Jersey). And 20 states don't specify any limits on releasing victim information at all, leaving it to discretion under other sections of law. 

All states withhold information if releasing it would compromise a criminal investigation. 

The N.J. Press Association says, "The blanket exemption in the bill, however, raises more problems than it solves and, as described, is completely unworkable." 

We agree, and join the NJPA in calling for the bill to be rejected or at least reworked to make it respectful of the public's need for information on crime. 

 

Source: Press of Atlantic City

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