Community notification is relatively new, and states are still refining how best to put it into practice. However, those jurisdictions that build community involvement into their notification practices appear to offer the greatest promise. Some of these emerging practices include:
Balancing Competing Interests. "The offender has to live somewhere," a probation officer said in a local newspaper report, "and the community has a right to safety." How can these interests be addressed in a balanced way? In Connecticut, a team of individuals, including community corrections officials, victim advocates and sex offender treatment providers, have developed a multi-dimensional approach to this issue: The team conducts community notification, works with victims, and has secured a grant to lower the adult probation sex offender caseload size to ensure careful supervision and monitoring of those sex offenders under community supervision. Connecticut's balanced approach directs services to the entire community.
Informing the Community. The public often has little understanding of sex offenders, sexual offending, and treatment interventions for these offenders. Some of the most proactive communities have used notification as an opportunity to educate their communities:
In each of these examples other benefits accrue: criminal justice personnel get out into the community to provide assurance and reduce fear, and a problem-solving relationship develops between criminal justice professionals and local residents.
- Public Meetings. Some police departments in the state of Washington conduct public meetings to give community members concrete information that addresses their concerns and fears, including an overview of community notification laws and practices. In this forum, police counter misinformation, quell fears, discourage vigilantism and offer actions that citizens can take to enhance their safety.
- Personal Visits to Community Members. In Oregon, probation officers go door-to-door in notified areas to meet with citizens and provide notification information.
Risk Assessment. Classification instruments can be valuable tools to identify high risk sex offenders. However, these instruments must be used with caution because to date there are no risk assessment scales that have been developed or validated for all sex offenders. These assessments serve three distinct purposes:
Police Investigation Tool. In Illinois, police are using community notification, in conjunction with a sex offender registry, as a crime prevention and investigatory tool. For example, when a police officer conducts a routine traffic stop, along with a criminal history check, the officer receives information on known sex offenders and their release conditions. Thus, if a known sex offender is stopped while near a playground, the officer is immediately aware of the offender's history and the risk the circumstance presents.
- First, they aid law enforcement and others in identifying those offenders with histories that include behaviors indicative of risk.
- Second, they aid jurisdictions in targeting scarce resources. For example, departments are able to better identify which offenders are most in need of intensive supervision and treatment.
- Finally, they are used to determine the level and nature of community notification. Many states, such as Massachusetts, Minnesota, and Rhode Island, use a three-tier classification of sex offenders. The defining characteristics of each of these tiers may vary from state to state, but they are generally ordered along an axis of dangerousness. The typical three-tier system covers offenders who are low risk to reoffend (notification information is shared just with police agencies); moderate risk to reoffend (where notification also includes schools, neighborhoods and other organizations); and high risk to reoffend (which may also result in press releases). Some states only use two tiers (dangerous and non-dangerous). Still other states require mandatory notification only for high-risk offenders.
Collaboration. Community notification processes appear to be most effective when they involve the close cooperation of numerous entities. Those agencies who conduct risk assessments, those who notify the public, those who monitor and treat the offender, and victim advocates in the community would do well to establish a good working relationship to ensure the effective implementation of community notification practices.