All states are authorized to release information to the public about registered sex offenders and must have in place procedures that allow for the public to access that information when deemed necessary. In addition, states are now expected to make some of the sex offender registry information available to the public through their state registry Web sites and through the National Sex Offender Registry. However, outside of the public access requirements, states continue to have a level of discretion regarding their approaches to releasing information to the public or actively notifying the public about registered sex offenders. Not surprisingly, then, these processes vary from state to state (see, e.g., CSOM, 2001; Matson & Lieb, 1997).
Some states limit their information–sharing about registered sex offenders to a “passive” notification approach, which involves the posting of information on the state registry Web site. Interested parties are able to access and review the information about registered sex offenders living in their area or in other parts of the state, and through the National Sex Offender Registry citizens have the ability to search a national database. At the same time, other states have implemented an “active” notification approach, whereby they take specific steps within the community to disseminate information about certain sex offenders (see, e.g., CSOM, 2001; Matson & Lieb, 1997; Zevitz & Farkas, 2000). This may include conducting community meetings in jurisdictions in which a high risk sex offender may be returning, posting fliers in neighborhoods, advertising information in local newspapers, or even going door–to–door to inform local citizens about specific sex offenders who will be residing in those areas. Active notification most often occurs when a sex offender is released from incarceration and returns to a community, although it may also take place when a sex offender moves into a community or neighborhood after residing elsewhere.
As noted previously, with the exception of the requirements for passive notification systems through public access to Web–based and other sex offender registries, states continue to have flexibility around the approaches they use for notification with one exception: the provisions of the Adam Walsh Act are much more prescribed, and include active notification to specific parties, such as schools, public housing agencies, volunteer programs where minors or other vulnerable parties may be present, social services agencies responsible for child welfare, and others.
In addition to the variations in community notification practices between jurisdictions (i.e., passive versus active), states also vary with respect to the specific sex offenders (e.g., all sex offenders, adults only, sexually violent predators, sex offenders with child victims) to whom notification applies. Indeed, recognizing that sex offenders are a heterogeneous group with varying levels of risk for recidivism, it may be worthwhile to establish different processes (e.g., ranging from passive notification to broad, active notification) that are based on tiered levels of risk (see, e.g., CSOM, 1997, 2001; Matson & Lieb, 1997; Winick, 2003; Zevitz & Farkas, 2000). To illustrate, when a sex offender is classified as high risk, active and broad notification may be conducted, including the use of community notification meetings that are open to the public. Conversely, for a sex offender in a lower risk category, information dissemination may be restricted only to those individuals or organizations with increased vulnerability to specific offenders or classes of offenders, leaving law enforcement officials with discretion about who should receive such information.
Risk classification protocols should outline the specific processes and tools used to establish any tier classifications for community notification purposes, so that practices are consistent throughout the state. To ensure that these risk classifications are well–informed, jurisdictions may wish to include an empirically–validated, sex offender–specific risk assessment tool (e.g., RRASOR, STATIC–99) as part of the classification protocol. (For additional information about validated, sex offender–specific risk assessment tools for adult sex offenders, refer to the Assessment section of this protocol). Because offender risk can increase or decrease over time, jurisdictions that employ tier–based community notification practices may wish to include specific provisions for reclassification or reassignment within the system. This should include the circumstances under which reclassification should be considered, the process by which changes in risk will be assessed, specific criteria that will be used for reassigning sex offenders to tiers, and any modifications to community notification practices that may result from reclassification.
Very little research has been conducted on community notification, making it difficult to determine the relative effectiveness of different approaches to notification. However, the process of community notification in and of itself has the potential to create unintended consequences for sex offenders and their families (e.g., loss of employment, housing, and social supports) that may exacerbate existing difficulties with community reintegration (ATSA, 2005; Freeman–Longo, 1996; Malesky & Keim, 2001; Tewksbury, 2005; Zevitz & Farkas, 2000). These collateral consequences are noteworthy in that some of them are associated with recidivism among sex offenders (see, e.g., Hanson & Harris, 2000, 2001; Hanson & Morton–Bourgon, 2005). Therefore, when planning for community notification, multidisciplinary teams should develop collaboratively the policies, practices, and strategies that may facilitate community notification in a manner that reduces the potential for unintended consequences for offenders, family members, victims, other affected individuals, and communities at large. For example, approaching family members, victims, landlords, and employers before conducting a notification allows these individuals time to prepare for the disclosure.
Some jurisdictions have also developed protocols for conducting community meetings in a manner that reduces the potential for these collateral consequences (ATSA, 2005; CSOM, 2001; Zevitz & Farkas, 2000). When thoughtfully implemented by trained professionals, community notification meetings can provide useful information to the public about the prevention of sexual assault and can help communities understand the nature of offending. Moreover, community notification and education meetings can enhance public confidence in the agencies established to serve and protect their communities (ATSA, 2000; Berliner, 1996; CSOM, 1997, 2001; Matson & Lieb, 1997; Zevitz & Farkas, 2000). Based on this literature, and to reduce the likelihood of negative impact of notification, community meetings should be designed to:
- Inform communities about the benefits and limitations of community notification;
- Dispel common myths and misperceptions about sex offenders while providing education about effective treatment and supervision strategies;
- Educate the public about the incidence and prevalence of sexual victimization, including the data that suggests that stranger attacks are not as commonplace as believed;
- Ensure that community members understand the implications of further stigmatizing and ostracizing offenders; and
- Encourage community assistance with offender reintegration and subsequently, promote offender success.
Victim advocates can play an important role in the development of a successful community notification program (see, e.g., ATSA, 2000; CSOM, 2001). For example, states that use review committees to assess an offender’s risk of reoffense often enlist the help of victim advocates. Victim advocates can also be helpful in strategizing with corrections and law enforcement officials regarding who should be notified and how, as well as assisting in the notification itself. Moreover, victim advocates can ensure that policies and procedures protect the identities of victims during the notification process.
Some states that conduct community meetings use victim advocates to help educate audiences about the nature of sex crimes and teach parents how to protect themselves and their children from sex offenders. Victim advocacy groups, such as the National Alliance to End Sexual Violence, the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, the National Center for Victims of Crime, the National Sexual Violence Resource Center, as well as many state–based and local sexual assault advocacy programs, develop and provide educational materials that raise awareness about taking protective measures against sexual assault that may prove helpful in these endeavors.