Community notification has swept across the nation with strong political and popular support. Notification legislation is a beginning, but it raises many questions still unanswered about how to achieve community safety most effectively.
What are Effective Community Roles? Community notification laws clearly affirm the desire for protection from assaultive and predatory behavior. However, they do not suggest what communities should do once they are notified that sex offenders live in their neighborhoods. Effective implementation will include education on how community members can protect themselves and their families and the potential negative impacts of vigilante behavior.
Community Reintegration. How can communities ensure that notification practices do not impede the equally desirable goal of moving offenders into law abiding lifestyles in the community? Effective notification will aid communities in understanding the barriers confronted by released sex offenders and how addressing these barriers responsibly can reduce further victimization.
Resources for Implementation. Community notification laws, to date, have come with few or no resources for implementation. Thus, criminal justice agencies, from police to probation or parole, often have no additional resources with which to administer notification processes. The time devoted to notification may replace other public safety functions. Effective notification practices will include an examination of overall workload issues and adequate resource deployment that ensures community protection.
A Sense of Safety. The existence of community notification laws may create an unwarranted sense of security. Notification laws may provide useful information to community members but the challenge is to use that information wisely and to advise the public about what they can expect from notification, which does not in and of itself guarantee community safety. The way criminal justice officials carry out public education around these laws and their implementation is likely to contribute significantly to their success or failure.
Constitutionality. Community notification has been challenged in the courts on a variety of issues, including ex post facto application, violation of plea bargaining agreements, privacy, unwarranted search and seizure, excessive punishment, and inappropriate conditions of parole. Notification has been partially blocked in several states where some provisions are drawn more restrictively than elsewhere. While notification laws have passed legal tests in some courts, resolution may ultimately come through a U.S. Supreme Court decision. The primary debate in this area is whether notification is viewed as punitive (and therefore subjects the offender to punishment beyond the original sentence) or regulatory (which is generally considered to be a permissible action of the state).
Retroactivity is another aspect of notification laws that has raised questions of constitutionality. Many sex offenders were sentenced prior to the enactment of notification laws. Some states, such as Alaska, allow the retroactive application of notification to these offenders. This practice faces legal challenge and has halted notifications in some cases. Other states allow notification only for cases that have come to court after the passage of notification laws.
Preventing Vigilantism. Opponents of community notification are concerned that individuals (and communities) will react aggressively towards sex offenders. Although such incidents have been limited, some areas of the country have reported that vehicles have been vandalized, offenders and their families have been beaten and verbally assaulted, and a single incident of a house burning has been documented. Some communities have worked to prevent this, but individual acts of violence are always possible. Further, anecdotal evidence suggests that there have been cases in which citizens have attacked or invaded the homes of persons that were believed to be sex offenders, only to discover a mistake in identification. States have generally made it clear that such action by citizens will not be tolerated. In New York, for example, a telephone notification line gives out scant information, but firmly states that "taking things into your own hands" is illegal. Careful implementation of notification laws, along with comprehensive public education, may guard against such dangers. Community education and support are perhaps the only ways to prevent such acts.
Unintended Consequences. Although there has been no empirical research conducted, anecdotal evidence suggests that community notification practices have had some unintended consequences. These include an increase in plea bargaining,3 a lack of offender compliance with registration requirements, a decrease in the reporting of incest cases, and the fact that some child protective agencies are not charging juveniles with sexual abuse to avoid subjecting children and adolescents to the scrutiny of public notification laws.
Recommendations for Policy Teams. In an effort to enhance public safety and the effectiveness of community notification laws, policymakers should ensure that notification is not perceived as the sole responsibility of a single agency. Rather, community notification should be viewed as a system wide -- indeed a community wide -- responsibility. Where system wide policy teams are in place, they are encouraged to explore the advantages of community notification and safeguard against unintended consequences.
Building a Body of Research. Because little research has been conducted on community notification issues, limited empirical evidence is available to support or contradict the presumed benefits or risks of community notification. Communities and states developing notification guidelines should work with researchers at local colleges and universities, in government agencies, and with non-profit organizations to conduct meaningful research to assess the effectiveness of their own practices.
3 Offenders may plead to lesser charges (such as battery) that do not require community notification, or mandate treatment, for example.