Community Notification and Education
Over the past decade, the nation has focused increasing
attention on the risk that sex offenders pose to the safety of communities.
Legislation to address this issue has proliferated as a result, including
sex offender registries, community notification laws, and directives related
to the supervision and treatment of known sex offenders.
The term "community notification" refers to the dissemination
of identifying information to citizens and community organizations about
convicted sex offenders who are released into the community. These laws
are distinct from sex offender registration laws, which require convicted
sex offenders who are living in the community to notify police officials
of their place of residence.
Notification has grown from an idea of one police chief
in Washington State to a phenomenon that has received overwhelming public
support. This support can be attributed to the fact that sex offenders
reside in most communities and that notification is intended to protect
vulnerable populations, particularly children.
Many differences exist among the states, and within states,
in how they notify communities. The fact that there is little research
on community notification makes it difficult to determine which approach
is most effective, or if notification is effective at all. However, some
states have adopted promising approaches to notification that involve community
education and the strategic use of resources.
This paper examines the differences in state laws regarding
notification and explores some innovative approaches to community notification
and education in place across the United States. It is important to remember
that these laws apply only to known sex offenders who have been apprehended
and processed by the criminal justice system. These offenders account for
only a small portion of sex offenders in any community.
In order to understand the significant support for community
notification laws, it is important to examine the history of these laws
in the United States. Horrific events in Washington, Minnesota, and New
Jersey were the impetus for the creation of notification and registration
laws for sex offenders. These new statutes provided guidance for the rest
of the country as new states enacted their own registration and notification
In Washington State, a series of highly publicized sex
crimes occurred during a very short period of time. In May 1987, Earl K.
Shriner, a man with a long criminal record, completed a ten-year sentence
in Washington for kidnapping and assaulting two teenage girls. Two years
after his release, he raped and strangled a seven-year-old boy, severed
his penis, and left him in the woods to die. In 1989, Gene Raymond Kane
kidnapped and murdered a young Seattle businesswoman. He was on work release
after serving a 13-year sentence for attacking two women. In another incident
in 1989, Wesley Allen Dodd was apprehended during an attempted abduction
of a six-year-old boy from a movie theater in southwest Washington. Following
an investigation, Dodd confessed to the killings of two young boys who
had been riding their bikes in a park and the kidnapping and murder of
a four-year-old boy he found playing in a school yard.
In July 1989, Mountlake Terrace Chief of Police John Turner
learned of the imminent release to his community of a person who, while
in prison, had documented plans to sexually molest school children. Because
he did not want a repeat of the Shriner case, Chief Turner weighed the
potential for harm against the offender’s right to privacy and decided
to notify the community. This was the first instance of community notification
in Washington and was widely publicized throughout the state.
In response to significant public outcry from these crimes
and increased attention on the need to better protect communities, Governor
Booth Gardner appointed a task force to recommend changes to the state
laws. The task force held public hearings throughout the state and considered
numerous ways to strengthen the state’s statutes concerning sex offenses.
The task force’s recommendations became an omnibus bill enacted by the
1990 Legislature, outlining sweeping changes in the penalties for sex offenses,
including civil commitment, registration, and community notification (Lieb,
Washington State’s community notification
law applies to adult and juvenile sex offenders, regardless of conviction
date. Notification is dependent upon the level of risk an offender
poses to public safety. An end-of-sentence review committee was established
to assess, on a case-by-case basis, the public risk posed by sex offenders
who are preparing for their release from confinement or are accepted from
another state under the Interstate Compact. All sex offenders are
classified into tiers of risk for the purposes of public notification.
A model policy was developed for law enforcement agencies to follow when
disclosing information about sex offenders to the public:
Tier I, Low risk: Notice is made to law enforcement
agencies who may disclose information, upon request, to any individual
community member who resides near an offender.
Tier II, Moderate risk: In addition to the above, information
may also be disclosed to schools, child day care centers, family day care
providers, businesses, and organizations that serve primarily children,
women, or vulnerable adults, and neighborhood groups.
Tier III, High risk: In addition to the above, information
may also be disclosed to the public at large.
In October 1989, a masked man abducted 11-year-old Jacob
Wetterling at gunpoint near his home in St. Joseph, Minnesota. Neighbors,
friends, and strangers rallied to the Wetterling family’s aid and worked
diligently to search the area and distribute flyers across the country.
That outpouring of support led to the establishment of a nonprofit foundation
in Jacob’s name to focus national attention on missing children and their
families. Jacob remains missing to this day.
In 1991, the Jacob Wetterling Foundation recommended a legislative
initiative that resulted in the passage of Minnesota’s sex offender registration
act. Prior to this act, law enforcement agencies lacked resources to identify
known sex offenders residing in the state, which could assist in the investigation
of these types of crimes. The Wetterling Foundation also worked to have
this initiative passed on the federal level. In 1994, Congress enacted
the Jacob Wetterling Crimes Against Children and Sex Offender Registration
Act. The Act mandated that each state create a program to register sex
offenders and authorized discretionary community notification.
Like Washington State, Minnesota’s community
notification process is dependent upon the offender’s assessed level of
risk to reoffend:
Low risk: Information is maintained within law enforcement
agencies and is provided to victims;
Moderate risk: In addition to the above, law enforcement
agencies may disclose information to agencies and groups that the offender
is likely to encounter; and
High risk: In addition to the above, law enforcement agencies
may disclose information to members of the community whom the offender
is likely to encounter.
End-of-confinement review committees assess the public risk
posed by sex offenders on a case-by-case basis and are utilized at each
state correctional facility and each state treatment facility where sex
offenders are confined.
A model policy was developed to address and recommend
the contents and form of community notification, methods of distributing
community notification, methods of educating community residents at public
meetings on how they can use the information to enhance their safety, and
procedures for educating sex offenders on the nature and scope of the notification
Seven-year-old Megan Kanka was raped and murdered in 1994
by Jesse Timmendequas, a twice convicted child molester who lived on her
block in Hamilton, New Jersey. Megan’s parents believe that if they had
known that a pedophile lived nearby, this heinous crime would never have
happened. Megan’s death gave new momentum to the concept of community notification—that
residents should be warned when a sex offender moves into their neighborhood.
Residents of Megan’s community held rallies and signed petitions
in support of community notification. Megan’s parents served as leaders
to the cause, beginning a very public campaign to protect children. In
1995, this campaign led to the enactment of community notification legislation
in New Jersey, known as "Megan’s Law." New Jersey politicians helped carry
the issue to a national level. President Clinton signed the Megan’s Law
amendment in May 1996, changing the discretionary language in the Jacob
Wetterling Act regarding community notification to a requirement.
New Jersey’s community notification law
is similar to Minnesota and Washington laws, in that the notification process
is dependent upon the degree of risk an offender presents to the community:
County prosecutors, together with law enforcement officials,
assess the risk of reoffense by each released sex offender and determine
the appropriate means of notification. Some methods of notification
include community meetings, speeches in schools and religious congregations,
and door-to-door visits in the community.
Low risk: Notice is provided only to the victim and law enforcement
agencies likely to encounter the offender;
Moderate risk: In addition to the above, notice is given
to community organizations including schools, and religious and youth organizations;
High risk: In addition to the above, community members who
are likely to encounter the offender are notified.
In November 2000, voters in New Jersey approved a measure
to amend the state constitution to allow sex offender registration information
to be posted on the Internet. Previously, the New Jersey Supreme
Court had ruled that broad release of this information violated offenders’
Congress passed the Jacob Wetterling Act (Title XVII of
the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994), requiring states
to create registries of offenders convicted of sexually violent offenses
or crimes against children and to establish more rigorous registration
requirements for highly dangerous sex offenders. While states did not receive
any additional federal funding to fulfill the Act’s requirements, they
are penalized if found not in compliance. The U.S. Department of Justice
issued guidelines (January 5, 1999) to assist states with complying with
the Act and its amendments. [The original compliance deadline for the Jacob
Wetterling Act was September 1997; a two-year extension was granted to
states making good faith efforts to achieve compliance. States granted
this extension had until September 12, 1999, to comply with the original
features of the Act. States found not in compliance are penalized
10 percent of their Byrne Grant funds.]
The Wetterling Act has been amended three times, by the
Megan’s Law was added in 1996, requiring community notification;
The Pam Lychner Sexual Offender Tracking and Identification
Act was added in 1996, heightening registration requirements for repeat
and aggravated offenders; and
Section 115 of the General Provisions of Title I of the Departments
of Commerce, Justice, and State, the Judiciary, and Related Agencies Appropriations
Act (CJSA) was added in 1998, increasing sexually violent predator requirements
and requiring the registration of federal, military, and non-resident students
In addition, the 1998 CJSA amendments require states to participate
in the National Sex Offender Registry (NSOR). The NSOR will interface with
state registries to identify, collect, and properly disseminate relevant
information that is consistent, accurate, complete, and up-to-date. The
NSOR was established so that state registry information could be tracked
between jurisdictions. The NSOR was launched in July 1999, as part of the
National Crime Information Center (NCIC 2000). [The FBI established
NCIC 2000 to provide a nationwide information network database of criminal
justice information to law enforcement agencies, improving positive identification,
data quality, access to external databases, usage statistics, and flexible
The principal objective of community notification is to
ensure that members of the public can obtain information that can help
them protect themselves and their families from dangerous sex offenders
residing in their community. Federal guidelines allow states discretion
in determining the approaches they will take to notification. These guidelines
state that "The designated state law enforcement agency... shall release
relevant information that is necessary to protect the public concerning
a specific person required to register." All 50 states have enacted sex
offender community notification legislation. The following chart shows
the growth in states enacting notification laws—the majority of activity
occurred between 1994 and 1996.
Variations in state community notification laws occur in
the following areas:
the procedures or guidelines for agencies to follow when
performing a notification;
the categories of offenders who are subject to notification;
the scope, form, and content of notification; and
the designation of an agency to perform notifications.
State community notification laws can be divided into three
categories, organized by the extent of notification: broad community notification;
notification to those at risk; and passive notification (Matson and Lieb
Broad Community Notification
In states utilizing broad notification, criminal justice
officials actively and widely release information about sex offenders to
the public. Currently, 19 states provide this type of notification. The
process for determining which offenders should be subject to notification
differs from state to state. Some state statutes define this population.
In other states, officials conduct risk assessments to make this determination.
Still others rely on local law enforcement discretion.
Notification to Those at Risk
States that utilize a more limited type of notification
release information based on the need to protect an individual or vulnerable
population from a specific sex offender. Currently, 14 states provide this
type of notification. As with states in the broad community notification
category, the process for determining which offenders are subject to notification
differs from state to state. Organizations typically notified are child
care facilities, religious organizations, public and private schools, and
other entities that provide services to children or vulnerable populations.
States that utilize passive notification require citizens
or community organizations to actively seek out sex offender information
themselves. Currently, 17 states allow such access. In most of these states,
this information is available at local law enforcement offices or through
a central state agency (typically managed by state police or department
of public safety). While most are open for public inspection, others are
open only to citizens at risk from a specific offender (generally determined
by proximity to an offender’s residence).
Identifying Offenders for Notification
The process by which an offender is selected for community
notification also varies from state to state. In many states, legislation
mandates notification for offenders convicted of specific sex offenses.
In others, discretion is granted to the notifying authority. Some states
conduct risk assessment on offenders before determining if notification
Statutory Determination. The majority of states’
notification laws define the population of offenders that are subject to
community notification as those convicted of a sexually violent offense
or a sexual offense against a victim who is a minor. These states typically
do not distinguish between high- and low-risk offenders.
Law Enforcement Discretion. In some states, local
law enforcement agencies make the final decision on notification. Generally,
law enforcement officials have broad discretion in making this decision.
Risk Assessment. Several states assess the risk
of individual offenders before notification. At least 12 states use risk
assessment instruments and an additional six states enlist committees for
the purpose of assessing an offender’s level of notification. The most
common risk assessment tools used in these states are the Oregon Sex Offender
Assessment Scale, the Minnesota Sex Offender Screening Tool-Revised (MnSOST-R),
the Rapid Risk Assessment for Sex Offense Recidivism (RRASOR), and the
Static-99. Other states have developed their own risk assessment instruments.
These instruments categorize offenders according to their similarities
and differences from offenders known to have committed new sexual offenses.
Under federal guidelines, states are not required to
register or conduct notification on juveniles who are adjudicated delinquent
for a sex crime. However, states have the option to require registration
and notification for these youth. Juveniles adjudicated or convicted of
a sex offense are required to register in 28 states:
Indiana (age 14 or older)
Mississippi (if twice adjudicated)
South Dakota (age 15 or older)
California, Colorado, Illinois, Michigan, Minnesota,
North Carolina, and Vermont prohibit the release of this information to
the public. The remaining states authorize notification in some or all
instances, or are silent on the matter.
Methods of Notification
When it is determined necessary to release information
to the public about a sex offender, various methods of dissemination are
used. However, most states use one or more of the following practices:
media release, door-to-door flyers, mailed flyers, or Internet distribution.
Several states also utilize other methods. For example, in Louisiana, the
offender is required to place an ad in a local newspaper and mail the notification
to neighbors and the superintendent of the school district in which he
or she intends to reside. In Texas, judges can order the posting of signs
on an offender’s home, warning neighbors that a sex offender resides within.
California, Florida, New York, and Wisconsin maintain "800" or "900" telephone
lines that the public may call to inquire whether individuals are registered
sex offenders. In California, a CD-ROM containing a list of all registered
sex offenders is available for public viewing throughout the state at local
law enforcement offices.
The broadest form of notification is issuing a media
release. Generally, with a media release, a press conference is held or
a local newspaper or television station is alerted about a specific offender.
Usually, a notice is placed in a newspaper of general circulation in the
county in which the offender intends to reside or with a local television
station. In the notice, identifying information is given about the offender
along with his or her criminal history. In some instances, the media may
choose to run a more detailed story.
Some jurisdictions, usually those that are more rural
or suburban, alert the public door-to-door with flyers or bulletins distributed
to neighbors living in a certain proximity to a sex offender. In these
instances, a criminal justice official delivers the flyers in person to
citizens in communities at risk. These flyers or bulletins contain identifying
information about the offender and his or her criminal history.
In other jurisdictions, criminal justice officials choose
to notify the public through mailed flyers or bulletins. Similar to door-to-door
flyers, information is mailed to the communities within certain geographic
parameters. Identifying information is provided about the offender and
his or her criminal history.
Accessing Registration Information
Almost every state maintains a central registry, which
lists all registered sex offenders within the state. In addition to or
in lieu of notification, many states allow members of the public access
to these registries. In these instances, information can be accessed in
a variety of ways: telephone, computer, written request, or by review of
the registry at a local law enforcement office.
At the time of this writing, approximately 28 states
and the District of Columbia operate sex offender registry Internet websites.
The majority of these sites have been implemented over the past three years.
The first states to launch these sites were Alaska, Florida, Indiana, and
Kansas. California, Maryland, New Jersey, and Rhode Island recently passed
bills authorizing Internet registries (which have yet to be launched).
There are also many local websites that list registered sex offenders within
a given city or county, which are operated by local law enforcement. A
number of private sector agencies and private citizens also post lists
of registered sex offenders. In these instances, individuals have obtained
registration lists from law enforcement and posted them without law enforcement’s
Several jurisdictions’ approaches to notification include
community meetings designed to provide information about the offender,
sex offenders in general, and community protection. In some cases, these
meetings also serve to introduce the offender personally. Meetings are
held regarding specific offenders or the topic can be addressed as part
of a community crime prevention meeting.
Advantages and Disadvantages of the Different Types
||Reaches the broadest possible
audience in the least amount of time; is more cost effective than notifying
communities one household at a time.
||Unable to assure that all vulnerable
citizens have been reached.
Unable to respond immediately to citizen questions about
the situation or the law.
Media potentially will not print the information as requested.
Depending on the volume, the significance of each notification
to the public may be lost.
||Allows law enforcement to personally
address concerns the public may have about a sex offender.
Shows the community that law enforcement cares enough
to take the time to warn them.
|Only notifies a small group of
people. For example, the sex offender may work in a different community
than was notified.
More time consuming and expensive (in terms of staff hours)
than a media release.
or Posted Flyers
||More time efficient and less costly
in terms of staff hours, when compared to door-to-door visits.
Reaches all targeted community members.
|Not able to personally address
No opportunity to educate the public.
||Cost effective; less resource
||Relies on citizens to actively
seek out information—not everyone who is vulnerable will inquire.
Generally, these lists do not distinguish between high-
and low-risk offenders.
||Registries posted on the Web are
easily accessible by members of the public who have Internet access, making
this an effective dissemination tool for law enforcement.
After initial startup costs, this is an inexpensive way
to comply with federal requirements.
|Impersonal—not able to answer
questions or inform citizens of the appropriate use of such information.
Inability to limit who accesses the information over the
Misidentification—there can be problems encountering offenders
with the same name when searching.
Addresses and other information on registered sex offenders
is frequently outdated and inaccurate.
Information is too broadly disseminated and may go beyond
the scope of the intended audience.
Generally, these lists do not distinguish between high-
and low-risk offenders.
||Gives community members concrete
information about the offender and provides an excellent opportunity for
In this forum, presenters counter misinformation, quell
fears, discourage vigilantism, and offer actions that citizens can take
to enhance their safety.
Provides opportunities for supervision officers, treatment
providers, law enforcement officials, victim advocates, and others to work
together to present information to the community.
|If not properly conducted, a "mob
mentality" may emerge; presenters should be trained and a curriculum must
be in place prior to conducting these meetings.
Unable to assure that all vulnerable citizens will attend
or be reached.
The central constitutional challenge to community notification
statutes questions whether the burden imposed by the law constitutes punishment
of the offender. Notification laws have been challenged in nearly every
state. Courts have generally found that notification laws are constitutional
and that their principal purpose is regulatory in nature and not punitive.
Courts have further stated that the primary concern of these statutes is
protecting the public. Thus far, no challenges have overturned the law
completely, but some have forced legislatures to refine or modify statutes.
Portions of notification laws, such as procedural mechanisms (due process)
and retroactive application, are most susceptible to challenges in state
and federal courts.
The most common and successful due process challenge is
procedural due process. This challenge has occurred mainly in states that
classify offenders according to the level of risk they pose to communities.
This argument centers on whether an offender is allowed a hearing to challenge
a risk classification. This challenge succeeded in Massachusetts, New Jersey,
and New York, forcing the legislatures to revamp their statutes so that
every offender has the right to a hearing.
The Massachusetts Supreme Court recently found that provisions
of the state’s community notification law violated constitutional due process
[Doe v. Sex Offender Registry Board, Mass. SJC-07608 (July 24,1998)]. Massachusetts
uses a three-tier notification system, under which the state’s Sex Offender
Registry Board classifies an offender into one of three risk levels. The
State Supreme Court upheld the law; however, it found the risk level classification
system unconstitutional. The court made recommendations to alter the law
to satisfy constitutional due process:
"...the appropriateness of an offender’s risk
classification must be proved by a preponderance of the evidence, and that
the [Sex Offender Registry] board must make specific, written, detailed,
and individualized findings to support the appropriateness of each offender’s
risk classification. Offenders may appeal to the Superior Court for review
of the board’s decision..."
At least 10 states allow offenders to contest decisions subjecting
them to notification (Florida, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Nevada,
New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Texas, and West Virginia). In these
instances, an offender can petition a court for a hearing or seek administrative
review of the decision. At the court hearing, the offender has the right
to be present, give testimony, call and cross-examine witnesses, and be
represented by counsel.
In July 1995, the New Jersey Supreme Court upheld the
state’s notification statute, determining it to be constitutional as long
as sex offenders facing notification had a chance to exercise their right
to contest the decision in court:
"…those subject to the statue are entitled
to the protection of procedures designed to assure that the risk of reoffense
and the extent of notification are fairly evaluated before Tier II or Tier
III notification is implemented. We have concluded that judicial review
through summary proceeding should be available prior to notification if
sought by any person covered by the law." [Doe v. Poritz, 662 A.2d 367
The retroactive provisions of New Jersey, New York, and Washington
notification laws have been upheld by the United States Court of Appeals.
The issue of community notification of sex offenders has not been heard
by the United States Supreme Court.
Are Notification Laws Effective?
Community notification laws are based on the presumption
that alerting a community about a sex offender living in their neighborhood
will help prevent further cases of sexual assault. While it may not be
feasible to learn the number of crimes prevented by these laws, the impact
of notification practices should be evaluated to the extent possible. For
example, information can be gathered about the influence of community notification
on community perceptions, behaviors, criminal justice practices, and offender
Currently, research is lacking on the relationship between
community notification and reduced recidivism or increased community safety.
There are few studies on the effectiveness of community notification laws
(as there are few studies on the effectiveness of most laws). Most of this
research has been conducted in Washington State, where researchers have
studied offender recidivism after community notification and measured the
public’s response to the law.
The Washington State Recidivism Study
In 1995, the Washington State Institute for Public Policy
conducted a study on the state’s community notification law (Schram and
Milloy, 1995). The study examined how Washington State implemented community
notification, who was affected by it, and its impact on recidivism (as
measured by rearrest) among sex offenders subjected to the law. The study
provides a descriptive portrait of the offenders who were subjects of the
highest level (Level III) of community notification during the first three
years after implementation. Researchers found that adult sex offenders
targeted for notification usually had extensive sexual or violent offense
histories. Most had two or more prior convictions for offenses that typically
involved the molestation or rape of female children they knew. Most of
the offenders also had prior convictions for nonsexual offenses.
The study also provides a comparison of the recidivism
patterns of adult sex offenders who were subjects of Level III notification
with those of similar sex offenders who were released prior to the implementation
of the law, and who therefore, were not subject to notification. Researchers
found that at the end of 54 months at risk, the notification group had
a slightly lower estimated rate of sexual recidivism (19 percent) than
the comparison group (22 percent). This difference was not statistically
significant. Although there were no significant differences in overall
levels of general recidivism, the timing of reoffending was different for
the notification and comparison groups. Offenders who were subjected to
community notification were arrested for new crimes much more quickly than
comparable offenders who were released without notification.
The Washington Public Opinion Poll
As part of Washington State’s evaluation of the Community
Protection Act, a telephone survey was conducted soliciting public opinion
among Washington State adults about the state’s community notification
law. Over the summer of 1997, approximately 400 residents from both rural
and urban regions of eastern and western Washington State were surveyed
The results of the survey indicated an overwhelming majority
of respondents were familiar with the law and believed it was very important.
Nearly 75 percent of the respondents reported they learned more about sex
offenses and how sex offenders operate because of community notification.
More than 60 percent agreed that community notification makes released
sex offenders more law abiding than they would be if no one in the community
knew their background. The vast majority of respondents indicated they
were more safety conscious and had a heightened awareness of their surroundings
as a result of community notification.
Community notification is relatively new and states are
still refining how best to put it into practice. However, those approaches
that involve the community appear to offer the greatest promise. The following
section describes innovative approaches to community notification in place
in Connecticut, Oregon, and Washington, and specific jurisdictions in Arizona
Arizona enacted its notification law in 1996. In Mesa,
since the inception of the law, 493 sex offenders (out of approximately
1,500 registered) have been identified as moderate or high risk and subject
to community notification. The Mesa Police Department surveyed communities
to find out how they would like to be notified about sex offenders residing
in their neighborhoods. Door-to-door notification is the preferred method;
five detectives are assigned to conduct these notifications. Because of
the overwhelming workload that notification presents, community action
grant officers and bicycle officers (funded through community policing
grants) are enlisted to assist in the notification process. In addition,
neighborhood block watch captains, volunteers, probation officers, and
treatment providers aid in these efforts. During these door-to-door notifications,
citizen reactions are documented. If a citizen indicates any intention
of harming or harassing an offender, they are subsequently visited by one
of the Mesa Police Department detectives and warned that vigilante activity
will be prosecuted.
In Mesa, community meetings are also held. At these meetings,
law enforcement and other presenters (i.e., probation officers and treatment
providers) educate the public and media about sexual assault statistics
and facts, and offer guidance on protection from sexual assault. They also
encourage citizens to watch for inappropriate behavior by the offenders
and to report any suspicious activity to the police department hotline.
In Connecticut, a team of individuals that includes probation
and parole officials, law enforcement, victim advocates, and sex offender
treatment providers have developed a multi-disciplinary approach to community
education and notification. Team members view community education as an
integral part of notification and have developed a comprehensive, collaborative
model, which incorporates information from the various team members. Recently,
the Judicial Branch, in collaboration with team members, developed a supplemental
video to enhance education information provided to communities through
In Connecticut, victim advocates assist probation and
parole officers (as well as other team members) in conducting community
notification, through door-to-door visits or community meetings. Advocates
help shift the focus of notification laws from merely informing the public
about known offenders in their neighborhoods to preventing future sexual
victimization. Advocate involvement in the notification process creates
the opportunity to educate citizens about sexual assault and offer help
The Tampa Police Department recently developed the Sexual
Predator Identification and Notification Program (SPIN). SPIN is a proactive,
comprehensive community policing initiative that addresses the issue of
sex offenders released from incarceration back into communities. In addition
to carrying out the minimal requirements of community notification, the
SPIN Program enlists the community policing officer assigned to the area
to contact sex offenders on a monthly basis. These contacts serve multiple
purposes. Officers ensure that the offender lives at the address listed
in the state database and verifies the offender’s compliance with state
laws, which mandate that the offender maintain a valid, updated license
and accurate registration information. Additionally, community oriented
police officers work daily with probation officers to monitor offenders
and ensure that they are complying with conditions of probation.
The SPIN coordinator meets regularly with community members
and gives presentations to explain all aspects of the program, legal issues,
and the rights of both citizens and offenders.
Trained parole and probation officers in Oregon use the
Sex Offender Assessment Scale, developed in the state, to determine whether
an offender exhibits predatory characteristics and should be subject to
notification. Supervising probation or parole officers develop an individualized
notification plan based on the offender’s criminal behavior and the make-up
of the community. Typically, neighborhoods are notified through door-to-door
delivery of flyers with descriptive information about the offender. A 1996
amendment to the statute permits law enforcement agencies to conduct lifetime
notification for predatory sex offenders not under supervision.
In Oregon, notification is used as a management tool—when
an offender is doing poorly in treatment or not complying with conditions
of his or her supervision, officials may decide that the offender poses
a risk to the community and should be subject to notification.
When issuing a notification, probation officers leave
flyers at a residence only if an adult is in the home. This practice allows
officers the opportunity to address citizen questions or concerns about
the offender. If an adult is not present, officers either leave their business
cards or leave a flyer with a neighbor. Following door-to-door community
visits, flyers are also mailed to the media, school districts, and other
law enforcement agencies.
In Washington State, local community meetings are either
convened regarding a specific offender or to discuss broader issues of
sexual assault; sex offender management may be addressed as part of an
overall crime prevention meeting.
Community meetings that focus on specific sex offenders
are presented by law enforcement, Department of Corrections staff, and
others (including legal advisors, juvenile justice officers, representatives
from the prosecutor’s office, representatives from crime prevention units,
school officials, mental health providers, victim advocates, and community
leaders). They provide educational information as well as facts about offenders
who are the subjects of the meetings.
Generally, a predetermined agenda is followed that sets
the ground rules and expectations of the meeting. The notification law
is first described, followed by a presentation on what is known about sex
offenders and safety related issues. Finally, information on the specific
offender is presented (such as where they live, what they were convicted
of, victim characteristics, and other identifiers) and questions are answered.
Despite the legislative purpose of community notification
to enhance public safety, notification can have negative effects on the
criminal justice system, the community, victims, and offenders (Freeman-Longo,
Potential for Vigilantism
The potential for citizens to harass offenders following
notification has been a concern since community notification laws were
first passed. Anecdotal incidents of vigilantism or harassment have been
reported in almost every state in the country. Fortunately, few have been
violent in nature. Instead, most of these incidents have involved verbal
threats and/or attempts to force the offender to move from the community.
The fact that violent incidents are relatively rare may seem surprising
given the media attention to these events. At least four states have tracked
incidents of harassment: New Jersey, Oregon, Washington, and Wisconsin.
In New Jersey, 135 community notifications produced one
instance of physical assault reported to the authorities and four reports
of threats, harassment, or other offensive, non-violent actions. In July
1998, an individual reacting to a flyer distributed by police shot at the
house of a recently paroled rapist. [This information was collected from
November 1994 through May 1996, in preparation for a court case (E.B. v.
In Oregon, less than 10 percent of those offenders subject
to notifications experienced some form of harassment (from November 1993
to January 1995). These incidents included name-calling, graffiti, and
minor property vandalism. Two extreme cases of harassment were reported;
the first involved a sex offender being threatened at gun-point and the
second included threats of arson to an offender’s residence (Oregon Department
of Corrections, 1995).
In Washington State, harassment incidents follow less
than 4 percent of notifications (from 1990 to 1996). [This data is from
a survey of law enforcement, in which respondents were asked to recall
incidents that they knew about and reported.] The most serious incident
resulted in arson of an offender’s intended residence. Two cases resulted
in minor property damage, and in two others, offenders were physically
assaulted (Matson and Lieb, 1996). In July 1998, neighbors in a trailer
park burned down a vacant mobile home days before a sex offender was scheduled
to move into it. Last year, a man was imprisoned for threatening a sex
offender at gun-point who had recently been released from civil commitment.
In Wisconsin, 23 percent of law enforcement agencies reported
incidents of harassment of sex offenders since the law took effect in 1997.
Most of these incidents were deemed minor, involving insults and verbal
taunts, and offenders being denied housing (Zevitz and Farkas, 1999).
Compliance with Registration Requirements
In addition to vigilantism and harassment, compliance
with registration requirements is a problem in every state. Some would
argue that notification causes sex offenders to abscond in order to avoid
additional stigmatization. Some states report that the whereabouts of as
many as 50 percent of registered sex offenders are not known. It is probably
safe to assume that no state has a 100 percent compliance rate in registering
sex offenders. Providing communities with exact addresses of offenders
whose whereabouts are in fact unknown can cause undue harm to individuals
who occupy a sex offender’s prior residence.
Because registration requirements generally last 10 years
to life, many registered offenders are not under community supervision
(i.e., probation or parole). In these instances, conforming with registration
requirements is dependent on the offenders’ choice to remain in compliance
or the degree to which law enforcement tracks and/or verifies offenders’
whereabouts. Failure to comply, which may result in inaccurate offender
addresses, jeopardizes the effectiveness of broad notification strategies.
All states impose penalties on offenders who fail to keep their registration
information current. Some impose felony sentences; others impose monetary
penalties for noncompliance.
Offenders Not Able to Find Housing
Some communities have reported that certain property
owners are not renting to sex offenders because of pressure from other
tenants or neighbors. In a few metropolitan areas, sex offenders who cannot
find residences are housed in local motels (by their parole or probation
officer) and even returned to prison until they can find adequate housing.
In Waukesha County, Wisconsin, two offenders chose to return voluntarily
to prison because they could not find housing following their notifications.
In some jurisdictions, sex offenders reside in shelters, temporary housing,
or on the streets. There have been instances of neighborhoods joining together
to keep registered offenders out of their community. Recently, in Lake
Oswego, Oregon, a group of residents pooled funds to send a registered
sex offender to college in order to remove him from their neighborhood.
Because offenders are not able to find residence, they
may be ineligible for early release and thus, "max-out" their sentence
(early release decisions generally are based upon an approved plan, which
includes approved residency). This means that some of the highest risk
offenders are released into the community with no court ordered supervision
or treatment to help them control their offending behavior.
Name and Shame in the United Kingdom
As evidenced by the “For Sarah Campaign,” named for eight-year-old
Sarah Payne who was murdered in the UK in July 2000, the public and media
can take matters of notification into their own hands. A “name and
shame” campaign by a local newspaper sought to identify more than 100,000
suspected pedophiles in the UK, because the public did not have access
to sex offender information. This campaign caused alleged offenders
to flee their homes to avoid persecution and has led to mob riots, physical
assaults, property damage, misidentifications, and a suicide that is believed
to be related to the campaign (Born, 2000, News of the World, 2000).
There have been instances around the country of victims’
identities revealed as a result of community notification. The potential
is highest when victims are related to or known to offenders. Furthermore,
when officials conduct notification in neighborhoods where the offender’s
victim resides, they may inadvertently traumatize the victim in the process.
In an effort to comply with federal guidelines efficiently
and economically and to release vital information about offenders to the
public, many states have adopted the use of Internet websites to post sex
offender registration information. However, posting sex offender registries
on the Internet raises several concerns. These include the accuracy of
the information provided, the potential unintended identification of the
victim, and privacy concerns of the offender. There are several other key
issues to consider in the use of Internet websites, including the following:
States that list registered sex offenders on websites rely
on citizens to proactively seek this information. If the goal of making
such lists available to the public is to protect the citizenry, these methods
must be employed with the knowledge that not everyone who is vulnerable
will inquire through an Internet registry.
Citizens who learn of sex offenders in their community via
the Internet are not always provided with support or education when receiving
this information. Many professionals in the field contend that citizens
are ill equipped to respond to this information absent additional education
on the risks of sexual offending and how one might better protect oneself
and one’s family.
Internet registries do not require a demonstration of a "need
to know" when an individual accesses the information they provide. Several
states have elected to use alternative methods of access that contain a
"need to know" checkpoint to ensure that the information obtained is used
for the purposes for which it is intended (such as a parent checking to
see if a neighbor is a registered sex offender).
Anecdotal reports from around the country have described
incidents where offender information on a website has been outdated or
incorrect, thus subjecting innocent citizens to stigma or harassment.
Reducing Unintended Consequences
The negative and often unintended consequences of community
notification can be harmful to communities and to sex offenders’ efforts
to reintegrate into society. Different programs throughout the country
have made efforts to reduce these effects. These efforts involve education
of citizens and explanation of laws, identification of offender risk, caution
around exact address release, planning and foresight, cooperation with
media, and involvement of victim advocates.
The opportunity to educate the public may be the most
powerful aspect of recent community notification efforts. Education should
focus on: the fact that victimization data indicate that most sex offenders
remain undetected in the community, that most people are victimized by
someone they know, and that known sex offenders are often under the supervision
of the criminal justice system; the steps that the criminal justice system
can and cannot take to control these offenders; and methods to protect
oneself and one’s family from sexual victimization.
Community notification may best be reserved for those
offenders at greatest risk to reoffend. Reconviction data suggest that
not all sex offenders reoffend and alerting the public of their crimes
may be detrimental to offenders’ progress in treatment and community reintegration.
Sex offenders are not a homogenous group; reoffense rates vary among different
types of sex offenders and are related to specific characteristics of the
offender and the offense. Several states assess the risk of individual
offenders and only release information to the public about higher risk
Community notification usually takes place upon an offender's
release from incarceration. However, notice should also take place when
an offender is found in noncompliance with supervision conditions or registration
requirements, or when an offender absconds from his or her jurisdiction.
Some states use notification as a management tool under these circumstances,
alerting the public when an offender is of greater risk. This serves two
purposes; it informs communities of dangerous behaviors by particular offenders
and it helps keep sex offenders in compliance through the threat of public
Some states post warnings on their Internet websites,
indicating that the purpose of the list is to help protect the public from
potential danger posed by individuals who have committed sex offenses.
These statements also reflect that any actions taken against any person
on the list, including vandalism of property, verbal or written threats
of harm, or physical assault against an individual on this list, their
family, or employer, may result in arrest and prosecution. The public should
be further notified that ostracizing or harassing sex offenders can stand
in the way of their successful reintegration into the community.
Accuracy of Information
Offender registration information must be updated regularly
to maintain accuracy. States have a responsibility to ensure that the information
is as accurate and up to date as possible. At a minimum, offenders who
are out of compliance with registration requirements should not have their
addresses posted on websites or given as part of notification, as this
information is more than likely inaccurate. In addition, regular record
updates ensure that other information, such as the offender’s physical
appearance, is kept current.
In planning for community notification, corrections and
law enforcement officials should identify individuals who may be negatively
affected and develop strategies to reduce these potential impacts, without
interfering with the notification. Notifying family members, victims, landlords,
and employers before conducting a notification allows these individuals
time to prepare for the disclosure. Every effort should be made to protect
the privacy of any victims of sex offenders subject to community notification.
It is vital that no direct or indirect identifying information regarding
the sex offenders’ victims be released as a part of the notification process.
Victim advocates (both community-based and governmental)
can play an important role in the development of a successful community
notification program. States that use review committees to assess an offender’s
risk of reoffense often enlist the help of victim advocates. In many instances,
legislation requires their participation in the development of the classification
procedures or in the actual risk assessment. 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. In addition, victim advocates can 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. Victim
advocacy groups, such as the National Center for Missing and Exploited
Children, the National Center for Victims of Crime, and many local sexual
assault advocacy programs, develop and provide educational materials that
teach parents how to protect their children and themselves.
Agencies charged with protecting the public from sex
offenders (i.e., probation, parole, law enforcement, and treatment providers)
should enlist the support of the news media in their community protection
efforts. These agencies should provide the media with general information
about sex offender management practices and resources for victims. If this
is accomplished, the media can be a positive resource in the notification
For the benefits of community notification to be realized
to the greatest extent possible, notification should be used as an opportunity
to educate the public. Notification should be accompanied with community
discussions about the nature and extent of sexual offending, what is known
about sex offenders, sex offenders’ rights, and actions that citizens can
take to protect themselves and their families. Communities also need to
be educated about the role notification plays in sex offender management.
What is the Extent of Sexual Offending?
Those people who commit sexual assaults, whether convicted
for these offenses or not, live in our communities. Data suggests that
there are many more sexual abusers in the community than those who have
been identified by the court system (or are subject to community notification
or placed on Internet registries). A 1992 study estimated that only 12
percent of rapes were reported (Kilpatrick, Edmunds, and Seymour, 1992).
The National Crime Victimization Surveys conducted in 1994, 1995, and 1998
indicate that only 32 percent of sexual assaults against persons 12 or
older were reported to law enforcement. As of April 1998, there were approximately
280,000 registered sex offenders in the United States (Baldau, 1999). This
number may only represent a fraction of those who commit sexual assault.
Who Commits Sexual Offenses?
Most sexual assaults are committed by someone known to
the victim or the victim’s family, regardless of whether the victim is
a child or an adult. Statistics indicate that the majority of women who
have been raped know their assailant. A 1998 National Violence Against
Women Survey revealed that among those women who reported being raped,
76 percent were victimized by a current or former husband, live-in partner,
or date (Tjaden and Thoennes, 1998). Also, a Bureau of Justice Statistics
study found that nearly 9 out of 10 rape or sexual assault victimizations
involved a single offender with whom the victim had a prior relationship
as a family member, intimate, or acquaintance (Greenfeld, 1997). Approximately
60 percent of boys and 80 percent of girls who are sexually victimized
are abused by someone known to the child or the child’s family (Lieb, Quinsey,
and Berliner, 1998). Relatives, friends, baby-sitters, persons in positions
of authority over the child, or persons who supervise children are more
likely than strangers to commit a sexual assault.
What are the Rights of Sex Offenders?
The public must accept that sex offenders will and do
live in our communities. It is not feasible for every community to incarcerate
all sex offenders for life. Citizens should be encouraged to refrain from
ostracizing sex offenders or their families.
Citizens should use available channels for expressing
concerns. If community members have a concern about a particular sex offender,
this information should be brought to the attention of the offender’s probation
or parole officer immediately. If there is not a satisfactory response,
citizens should call the officer’s supervisor. Attempts by citizens to
confront, harass, or shame a sex offender into compliance can have unintended,
negative consequences. Concerns should always be addressed through the
official criminal justice system.
Communities can help by supporting sex offenders’ attempts
to reintegrate into society. Assuring stable housing and employment for
these offenders can promote safety in the long run.
How Can Citizens Protect Themselves?
In order for citizens to most effectively protect themselves,
it is important that they clearly understand who is at risk and how best
they can be protected. Citizens should be encouraged to educate themselves
and loved ones about the dangers of sexual assault and in particular about
child sexual assault. (Organizations such as the National Center for Missing
and Exploited Children and local sexual assault victim advocacy programs
provide free information on sexual assault protection.)
Citizens must understand that safely supervising sex offenders
in communities is a complex task. The strategies that are emerging as promising
for preventing individual offenders from reoffending involve the establishment
of numerous controls and safety mechanisms. Unfortunately, there is no
simple solution that will end sexual assault.
Knowing My 8 Rules for Safety
National Center for Missing and Exploited Children*
1. I always check first with my parents or the person in charge
before I go anywhere or get into a car, even with someone I know.
2. I always check first with my parents or a trusted adult before
I accept anything from anyone, even from someone I know.
3. I always take a friend with me when I go places or play outside.
4. I know my name, address, telephone number, and my parents’
5. I say no if someone tries to touch me or treat me in a way
that makes me feel scared, uncomfortable, or confused.
6. I know that I can tell my parents or a trusted adult if I
feel scared, uncomfortable, or confused.
7. It’s OK to say no, and I know that there will always be someone
who can help me.
8. I am strong, smart, and have the right to be safe.
*A sample of the public information resources currently available.
Why Do We Need to Talk About Managing Sex Offenders
Given that some portion of sex offenders are under correctional
supervision in the community, it is prudent that citizens are educated
about what effective supervision entails and the need to allocate appropriate
supervision and treatment resources to the management of these individuals.
Communities must also realize the importance of supporting offenders’ attempts
to reintegrate into society and become more productive citizens. Their
successful reintegration can also help provide much needed financial and
emotional resources to offenders’ families (which may include primary victims).
Community notification laws have been in effect for more
than 10 years. Surprisingly, little research has been conducted on the
impact of these laws. Perhaps this dearth of research is due to the tremendous
variation among the states, and even within states, in how these statutes
have been implemented. Regardless of what research does (or does not) tell
us, notification has tremendous support from the public and appears to
be gaining momentum, as evidenced by the rapid increase in states posting
registration lists on the Internet.
An increased awareness of sexual assault and how to prevent
it may well be the best possible outcome of community notification. Efforts
to increase public safety through notification can be furthered by using
the opportunity to educate the public about ways they can help protect
themselves. Even if community notification does not reduce the prevalence
of sexual assault in our society or the recidivism rates of those subjected
to notification, citizens can still benefit from these laws through the
opportunity for education and awareness they offer.
Scott Matson, Research Associate for the Center for Sex
Offender Management was the principal author this paper. Kristin Littel
and Madeline Carter edited the document.
|Center for Sex Offender Management
8403 Colesville Road, Suite 720
Silver Spring, MD 20910
Phone: (301) 589-9383
Fax: (301) 589-3505
|National Alliance of Sexual Assault Coalitions
110 Connecticut Blvd.
East Hartford, CT 06108
Phone: (860) 282-9881
|Detective Robert Shilling
Sex Offender Detail
Seattle Police Department
610 Third Avenue
Seattle, WA 98104
Phone: (206) 684-5588
|Jacob Wetterling Resource Center
32 1st St. NW
St. Joseph, MN 56374
Phone: (320) 363-0470
Fax: (320) 363-0473
|National Center for Missing and Exploited Children
2101 Wilson Blvd., Suite 550
Arlington, VA 22201
Phone: (800) THE LOST
|MPO Lisa Boeving
SPIN Program Coordinator
Tampa Police Department
411 N. Franklin St.
Tampa, FL 33602
Phone: (813) 276-3637
|Mesa Police Department
225 East 1st Street, Suite 102
Mesa, AZ 85201
Phone: (480) 644-2040
Fax: (480) 644-4084
|National Center for Victims of Crime
2111 Wilson Boulevard, Suite 300
Arlington, VA 22201
Phone: (703) 276-2880
Toll Free: (800) 211-7996
Fax: (703) 276-2889
|Washington State Institute for Public Policy
P.O. Box 40999
110 East Fifth Ave., Suite 214
Olympia, WA 98504
Phone: (360) 586-2677
Fax: (360) 586-2793
Adams, D. (1999). Summary of state sex offender registry
dissemination procedures. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Justice,
Bureau of Justice Statistics.
Baldau, V.B. (1999 August). Summary of state sex offender
registries: Automation and operation. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department
of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics.
Born, M. (2000, August 5). Paper drops paedophile campaign.
Center for Sex Offender Management (1997). An overview
of sex offender community notification practices: Policy implications and
promising approaches. Silver Spring, MD: Author.
Freeman-Longo, R.E. (2000). Revisiting Megan’s Law
and sex offender registration: Prevention or problem. Lexington, KY:
American Probation and Parole Association.
Greenfeld, L. (1997). Sex offenses and offenders: An
analysis of data on rape and sexual assault. Washington, D.C.: U.S.
Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics.
Kilpatrick, D., Edmunds, C., and Seymour, A. (1992). Rape
in America: A report to the nation. Arlington, VA: National Center
for Victims of Crime.
Lieb, R. (1996). Washington’s sexually violent predator
law: Legislative history and comparisons with other states. Olympia,
WA: Washington State Institute for Public Policy.
Lieb, R., Quinsey, V., and Berliner, L. (1998). Sexual
predators and social policy. In M. Tonry (Ed.), Crime and Justice (pp.
43-114). Chicago, IL: University of Chicago.
Matson, S. and Lieb, R. (1996). Community notification
in Washington State: 1996 survey of law enforcement. Olympia, WA: Washington
State Institute for Public Policy.
Matson, S. and Lieb, R. (1997). Megan’s Law: A review
of state and federal legislation. Olympia, WA: Washington State Institute
for Public Policy.
Named Shamed. (2000, July 23). News of the World.
Oregon Department of Corrections (1995, January). Sex
offender community notification in Oregon (Prepared for the 1995 Legislature).
Salem, OR: Author
Phillips, D. (1998). Community notification as viewed
by Washington’s citizens. Olympia, WA: Washington State Institute for
Schram, D. and Milloy, C. (1995).
A study of offender characteristics and recidivism.
Olympia, WA: Washington
State Institute for Public Policy.
Tjaden, P. and Thoennes, N. (1998).
and consequences of violence against women: Findings from the National
Violence against Women Survey. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of
Justice, National Institute of Justice.
U.S. Department of Justice (1999, January 5). Megan’s
Law; Final guidelines for the Jacob Wetterling Crimes Against Children
and Sexually Violent Offender Registration Act, as amended.
Register 64 (2), 572-587.
Walsh, E. and Cohen, F. (2000). Sex offender registration
and community notification: A ‘Megan’s Law’ sourcebook.
Civic Research Institute.
Zevitz, R. and Farkas, M. (2000).
Sex offender community
notification: Assessing the impact in Wisconsin. Washington, D.C.:
U.S. Department of Justice, National Institute of Justice.
Established in June 1997, CSOM’s goal is to enhance
public safety by preventing further victimization through improving the
management of adult and juvenile sex offenders who are in the community.
A collaborative effort of the Office of Justice Programs, the National
Institute of Corrections, and the State Justice Institute, CSOM is administered
by the Center for Effective Public Policy and the American Probation and
This project was supported by Grant No. 97-WT-VX-K007,
awarded by the Office of Justice Programs, U.S. Department of Justice.
Points of view in this document are those of the author and do not necessarily
represent the official position or policies of the U.S. Department of Justice.
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