Community notification laws allow or mandate that law enforcement, criminal justice, or corrections agencies give citizens access to relevant information about certain convicted sex offenders living in their communities. 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 where they are living, and from victim notification laws, which mandate that crime victims who wish to receive information about the criminal justice processing or release status of the person(s) who victimized them are provided with it. Police registration and victim notification laws are operating in fifty states; community notification is currently in place in forty-seven states.1 Provisions of community notification laws vary from state to state. States differ in their methods of informing the public of a sex offender's presence in the community and the extent of the information they provide. Some states proactively inform the community of the presence of sex offenders. Other states do not proactively inform the community, but rather, make information available to citizens upon request. The information that is provided or is made available to citizens also varies widely. At one extreme, some states make available information about certain categories of high-risk offenders. California, at the other extreme, recently released a CD-ROM containing information about thousands of sex offenders of many types. These differences reflect the fact that there are no national standards to guide the practice of community notification. Rather, these practices are being developed on a state-by-state and sometimes community-by-community basis.
Community notification has its roots in various anti-crime campaigns.
In the 1960s and the 1970s, women's groups increased public awareness of rape, sexual assault against women, and battering. Rape crisis centers and domestic violence shelters demanded a criminal justice response to previously hidden behaviors.
In the 1970s, the prevalence of physical and sexual abuse against children came out from behind closed doors.
Throughout the 1980s, the crime victim movement further expanded public concern over the unaddressed needs of all those who are victims of criminal violence.
In 1990, the State of Washington passed the first community notification law in the country in response to a particularly heinous crime. Louisiana and Oregon also passed laws in 1992 and 1993 in response to such crimes. Other states soon followed.
Four years later, in July 1994, seven-year old Megan Kanka was sexually assaulted and murdered by a neighbor, a sex offender who had been recently released from prison after completing his sentence. Megan Kanka's family, aided by victim advocates and supported by political leaders, encouraged a New Jersey (and later a national) campaign to enact a "Megan's Law" to inform community residents about the presence of convicted sex offenders in their neighborhoods.
Also in 1994, Congress passed and the President signed legislation, the Jacob Wetterling Crimes Against Children and Sexually Violent Offender Registration Act. It requires states to establish sex offender registration for convicted offenders, and a system to track them, within three years of its passage or lose up to ten percent of their Byrne Memorial State and Local Law Enforcement Assistance funding. In 1996, the Jacob Wetterling Act was amended to include the implementation of Megan's Law, the Federal community notification statute, by September 1997. Neither the original law, nor its amendment, include new funds for implementation.
1 The three states that do not have community notification legislation are: Kentucky, Nebraska and New Mexico.