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Editorial: The troubling question of sex offenders driving for ride services

It’s a serious question, and one that deserves serious consideration: With the proliferation of ride-hailing services such as Uber and Lyft, and the isolated and unsupervised environments in which they do business, what should be the policy on sex offenders as drivers?

The question is especially relevant to upstate New York, where ride-hailing is about to become legal following an agreement in Albany this spring. Lawmakers and Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo included significant restrictions against registered sex offenders working for these companies, and it was a sensible idea. Higher-level sex offenders – those classified as Level 2 or Level 3 – are deemed to be at moderate or high risk of becoming repeat offenders, while those at Level 1 are considered low risk.

Risk levels are not determined solely by the nature of any of the given crimes, but also by whether force or a weapon was involved, if alcohol or drugs played a role, the age of the victim and the number of victims.

Under the state’s new law, any sex offender listed on the national registry may never work for a ride-hailing service. Only Level 2 or 3 offenders in New York appear on the national list. Regarding the offenders at Level 1, the law prohibits them from driving for such services for seven years after their conviction or release from jail, whichever comes later.

It’s a necessary restriction. Given the nature of the worst sex offenders, who are at chronic risk of repeat assaults, it is clear that those ranked at Levels 2 and 3 should be permanently barred from jobs where they are alone and in control of potential victims. There is simply no possibility, under current understanding of the nature of these people, to take any chances.

The more difficult question is how the law should apply to those placed at Level 1. Is a seven-year wait truly necessary? Should it be even longer or, like those ranked at higher levels, be made permanent?
The answer lies in experience, both here and, more immediately, in other states, where ride-hailing services have been operating for years. They may offer clues on how to proceed.

Certainly, the restriction on Level 1 offenders is consistent with approaches to the working environments of other types of offenders. Those convicted of manslaughter or burglary, for example, would be prohibited from the ride-hailing industry for seven years, while a misdemeanor offense of operating a vehicle under the influence of alcohol or drugs would impose a three-year waiting period.

The problem is to protect the public without unnecessarily prohibiting New Yorkers from earning a living. The approach on Level 1 offenders is sensible, but should be re-evaluated in the coming years as New York and other states gain experience with this difficult subject.

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