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SUNDAY, JANUARY 22, 2006
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EDITORIAL

Public loses when information withheld

Victims' rights groups may have lost more than they think they gained in persuading the Alabama Criminal Justice Information Center Commission to close certain records to the public.

In the process, the public, too, may have lost its right to know and to make informed judgments about safety in their community.

The commission voted last week to conceal the identity of crime victims, which could be a major change in the way news media report information that surveys show is the most popular category of news that people either read, see or hear.

People want to know, and they need to know if their down-the-street neighbor was raped, robbed or killed. But the ruling now leaves it up to law enforcement agencies to decide if they will release names to the news media.

The ruling is the result of intense lobbying to protect victims' privacy, even though crimes impact everyone in a community. While the ruling removes information from the front page of the crime report that has been available to the public, the commission handed law enforcement agencies a gold nugget for dealing with an independent media.

The commission noted that police "have historically released victim names and telephone numbers to credentialed members of the news media" and that the change "is not intended to alter that practice."

Supposedly, this change only keeps that information away from criminals who might search for victims who are potential witnesses against them. But some law agencies will use their discretion to punish news groups, and could hamper help groups.

Already, Carol Gundlach, who heads the Alabama Coalition Against Domestic Violence, is worrying that victim support groups might also lose their access to this information.

The Legislature established ACJIC in October of 1975 to collect, store, retrieve, analyze, and disseminate vital information relating to certain crimes, criminals, and criminal activity.

Hopefully legislators will see that what this group made up mostly of law enforcement people did was self-serving and potentially dangerous to a free society, and correct this mistake.

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