For many, the sprawling prison grounds at the Point of the Mountain are a jumble of buildings where the criminals live.

For Beth Smith-Carlson, it's where her hopes and dreams reside with her husband - a convicted sex offender doing time.One day, she's sure he'll be released and she's hopeful about a new life the two will share to-geth-er.

That's why she opposes the new online sex offender registry offered by the Department of Corrections.

Smith-Carlson, a leader of a support group designed to help inmates' families, says the registry jeopardizes the offenders' safety and sentences them to eternal punishment.

At least one Salt Lake area sex crimes investigator agrees with Carlson that the list isn't a cure-all to forewarn parents about predators in their neighborhood.

"I think it creates a false sense of security because parents will think they can point to the blue house down the street, warn their child about the guy inside and everything's OK," said Salt Lake police Sgt. Don Bell.

Both Bell and Corrections spokesman Jack Ford feel the registry paints a somewhat inaccurate picture of Utah's sex offender landscape because parents who access the Web site aren't going to realize that those names they're reading are people who most likely molested someone they knew.

"I think the public mistakenly thinks of the strangers and abduction cases when they think of sex offenders," Ford said. "But in the bulk of these cases, the victim has been a family member."

The registry, which went online June 30, provides the names, addresses and physical descriptions of sex offenders convicted after April 29, 1996, when public access to the statewide registry became available.

By the end of this summer, Ford said the online service will provide more detailed information about sex offenders, including their photo, the kind of car they drive, their crime, the sort of victim they targeted and the methods they used.

All of this will be available with a few computer keystrokes, with list after list of sex offenders segregated by simple zip code des-ig-na-tions.

Smith-Carlson's criticism goes beyond misperceptions but also focuses on her assertion that the registry unfairly targets people who are simply trying to get on with their lives, exposing them and their families to ridicule and physical retribution.

"Someone decided they didn't want a sex offender in their neighborhood," she said. "They grabbed him out of his bed in the middle of the night and set his house on fire. He didn't even live there anymore. This registry just feeds, fuels and fires these fears."

Smith-Carlson is one of the founders of the support group Underwire, an 18-month-old organization designed to offer help to anyone who has a loved one in prison. Right now, the group is contemplating setting up a support system specifically targeting sex offenders and their families, she said.

"We've all seen the prison, and we know this is the place where bad people go, but until you are involved with someone who is locked up there, you can't understand the hopelessness. It is not just the inmate who is doing time, it is the family. The people who love him are doing time right along with him."

She contends convicted sex offenders are less dangerous to society than drug dealers who manufacture meth or gangbangers who riddle neighborhoods with bullets from their drive-by shootings.

"I am a lot more concerned about my neighbor making meth in his garage and setting his house on fire or someone who goes out and gets a DUI several times and runs over my granddaughter . . . The sex offenders who are still out there, the ones who haven't received treatment, those are the ones you need to worry about."

Police, though, point to the distinction that meth manufacturers typically target adults who actively seek their product and most drive-by shooters leave their own neighborhoods to search for rival gang members.

By contrast, pedophiles often stalk children over an extended period of time, cunningly soliciting their affection and using sophisticated ploys to get them to comply with their sexual demands.

"These children are totally innocent victims," said Brian Allen, the Republican legislator who sponsored the bill making the sex offender registry available to the public.

Propelled by the rape and murder of a 7-year-old New Jersey girl at the hands of a twice-convicted sex offender, Utah joined a nationwide movement two years ago that gives states the discretion to allow community notification of sex offenders' whereabouts.

Although Megan's Law, as it is popularly known, has come under judicial attack in varying states, it is now incorporated into a federal act that allows for some form of notification.

Allen said it is just part and parcel of communities' efforts to protect themselves from predators.

"Why aren't these groups talking about the travesty and emotional damage these guys did to these children? Where is their sympathy for the children whose lives are ruined?"

Allen, a former South Salt Lake police detective who investigated sex crimes, said he's witnessed the trauma inflicted by callous abusers too many times.

"I don't feel sorry for these guys."

Police, though, do agree with Smith-Carlson's contention that parents need to spend more time educating their children about inappropriate touching.

"If I could do something magical, I would remove the term `stranger' from the entire conversation dealing with the sexual assault of children," Bell said.

"`Stranger' takes on some weird vision. I think parents who are really concerned about their children need to sit down with them and explain that sometimes people, sometimes kids their same age, sometimes kids who are older, will want to look at them naked or touch them. Kids need to be aware of this."

When it comes to sexual assault, Bell contends children have more to fear from their relatives, teachers or Scout leaders than they do from some strangers off the street.

In 1997 alone, only 17 of 249 felony sexual assault cases in Salt Lake City involving children age 15 and under had complete strangers as suspects, Bell said.

"Very, very few of these involve strangers."

Allen concedes there is a widespread problem with incest and child sexual abuse by relatives but says the registry is intended to help protect children with all the information that is legally available.

"This only identifies known offenders. There are other threats we can't know about," Allen said. "If I can prevent one child from becoming a victim with this program, then I am all in favor of it."

*****

ADDITIONAL INFORMATION

Child molestation

Number of cases - 1997

The following numbers are cases that have been handled at the Salt Lake Children's Justice Center serving residents of Salt Lake County. The numbers reflect only those victims who have received services at the center in which sufficient suspect information has been obtained. Statistics may be different according to the Division of Child and Family services and law enforcement agencies.

Out of home offenders In-home offenders

Acquaintances 141 Fathers 100

Neighbors 82 Brothers 98

Fathers 54 Stepfathers 46

Uncles 36 Mother's live-in boyfriend 38

Cousins 32 Mothers 32

Friends 30 Uncles 21

Grandfathers 25 Sisters 13

Boyfriends of mother 20 Grandfathers 6

Teachers 12 Grandmothers 1

Scoutmasters 9

Mothers 5

Girlfriends of father 3