How Community Notification Works
Many state notification laws, as well as the federal law, permit discretion in fashioning notification processes. Some states centralize the establishment of guidelines and reporting functions at the state level. In these states, boards have been established to assess and classify sex offenders. The method and extent of notification in an individual case is determined by these classifications. Other states provide the local jurisdictions within their state the discretion to assess offenders and determine the method and extent of notification.
How and When Are Communities Notified? Communities receive notification that sex offenders are in the neighborhood in a variety of ways, including public meetings, letters, posters, radio or television advertisements, and press conferences. Depending upon the state in which they live, citizens can also obtain information about specific persons from notifying agencies through published information, by contacting local law enforcement agencies, by telephone, by logging onto World Wide Web sites, or obtaining CD-ROMs. Different states, and even different jurisdictions within a state, have varying procedures for conducting community notification. In some instances, notification is made not only when an offender is released from prison, but also, for example, when an offender absconds from supervision, moves to a different community, or when the offender's perceived risk to the community changes.
Which Offenders are Communities Notified About? Communities do not necessarily receive notification about all sex offenders living in their neighborhoods. Notification is often reserved for high-risk offenders2 or offenders who have committed crimes against children, while intra-familial sex offenders are less frequently the subject of notification. More often, communities receive notification about sex offenders who were strangers to their victims.
Many jurisdictions have established three-tier systems to identify (through the use of risk classification instruments, for example) the most predatory, dangerous offenders. In some places, only the highest risk offenders are subject to community notification. In other locations, no distinctions are made among the varying types of sex offenders and all are subject to notification.
Jurisdictions establish their own geographic limits for community notification practices. For example, in urban areas of Louisiana, when a sex offender moves into a neighborhood, only residents within a three-block radius are notified. However, when a sex offender moves into a rural area of New Jersey, residents within a two-mile area receive notification.
Who Gets Notified? Those states using community notification have essentially established four notification categories:
- Broad community notification (18 states) releases information about sex offenders to any person or organization who requests it.
- Organizational notification (14 states) informs organizations, such as day care centers and schools, that are especially vulnerable to particular offenders.
- Individual notification (13 states) informs victims and classes of victims of the presence of specific offenders in the community.
- Police notification (14 states) allows persons or organizations to obtain sex offender registry information from local law enforcement agencies.
What Information Do Communities Receive? Typically, individuals and organizations get offenders' names, photos, crime descriptions, and the age(s) of their victims. Information is often provided on how offenders target their victims as well as their modus operandi. Some notifying agencies may also provide community members with information about the nature of sexual offending, the characteristics of sex offenders, methods of self- or community-protection, and information about what can be done when one learns that a sex offender is living in their neighborhood.
Who Notifies Communities? Different agencies in different jurisdictions are responsible for notifying the public. Corrections departments, probation and parole offices, and law enforcement agencies have varying levels of responsibility across the country. In Louisiana, for example, the law mandates that sex offenders themselves must notify the communities they live in of their presence. They must do this by sending a card to community members within a three block (in urban areas) to one mile (in rural areas) radius, and by placing advertisements in two local newspapers that inform the community of their presence. Probation and parole agencies supervise this activity to verify its completion. Two-thirds of notification states, including California and Illinois, have guidelines and procedures written into state law. Some states, such as Arizona and New Jersey, require Community Notification Guideline Committees to establish appropriate procedures. One-third of the states, including Connecticut and Tennessee, give public officials broad discretion to develop their own procedures.
Who Monitors Those Offenders in the Community? Sex offenders who are under community supervision are monitored by criminal justice agencies, such as probation and parole, if they are under the supervision of the court. Sex offenders who have satisfied the terms of their sentences are not supervised in the community. State sex offender registration laws may require that sex offenders contact the police if they should relocate, and notification practices may result in a new series of notification events. However, notification in and of itself does not provide for further supervision of sex offenders in the community beyond the terms established by the sentencing court.
2 Jurisdictions differ in their classification of high risk offenders.