Sexual assault is a serious social problem of great concern. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services estimates that approximately 100,000 cases of child sexual abuse are substantiated each year. In addition, according to the 2005 National Crime Victimization survey, there were nearly 192,000 victims of rape, attempted rape, or sexual assault. In an effort to prevent sex crimes, community notification laws (also known as Megan’s Laws) allow information about convicted sex offenders to be disseminated to the public. Distribution of this information occurs through various means, including Internet registries, community meetings, media announcements, and distribution of flyers. The goal of community notification is to prevent sexual assault by warning potential victims that a convicted sex offender lives in the vicinity. Thus far, research has been limited in demonstrating the effectiveness of community notification in preventing sex crimes, in general, or sex offense recidivism more specifically. There is research to suggest that the collateral consequences of notification interfere with community reintegration for many sex offenders.
History and Development of Sex Offernder Notification Laws
The Jacob Wetterling Crimes Against Children and Sexually Violent Offender Registration Act was passed by the U.S. Congress in 1994. This federal statute mandated that all 50 states pass laws requiring sex offenders to report their addresses to local law enforcement agencies. The police are required to maintain a registry of convicted sex offenders’ current whereabouts. The law was named for an 11-year-old Minnesota boy who was abducted and remains missing to this day. The purpose of sex offender registration is to assist law enforcement agencies to track where sex offenders are located and to aid in the investigation of sex crimes by identifying a potential pool of suspects.
In 1996, the Wetterling Act was amended by adding a provision allowing states to distribute sex offender registry information to the public. This amendment is often referred to as Megan’s Law, and was named for a 7-year-old New Jersey child who was murdered by a previously convicted sex offender. The purpose of community notification is to provide information about sex offenders living in the community so that parents and other concerned citizens can take steps to protect themselves.
About half of the states classify sex offenders according to risk levels and use more aggressive notification to warn of sex offenders who are assessed to pose the greatest threat to public safety. Other states use broad community notification, publishing information about all sex offenders without an assessment of risk. Community notification methods vary in each state, but media releases, door-to-door warnings, flyers, community meetings, and Internet access are the most common strategies.
The Wetterling Act was again modified under the PROTECT amendment in 2003 to require states to post information about convicted sex offenders on public Internet registries. The Adam Walsh Act, passed in July 2006, increased the amount of information that can be disclosed on public registries, created more stringent registration requirements for offenders, and provided further guidelines for the development and activation of a national sex offender registry by which information from various states can by integrated into one database.
Sex offender registration and community notification initially began as distinct social policies with different goals. Registration was intended to be a tool to assist law enforcement agents to track sexual criminals and apprehend potential suspects. The purpose of notification was to increase public awareness and provide communities with information to help them avoid contact with sex offenders and thus prevent victimization. Over the past decade, however, Internet-based registries have led registration and notification to become nearly interchangeable.
The constitutionality of community notification statutes has been challenged. In 2003, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that a Connecticut statute was constitutional, allowing sex offenders to be placed on an Internet registry without first holding a hearing to determine their danger to the community. In an Alaska case, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that registration and notification of sex offenders whose crimes were committed prior to the passage of the laws did not constitute ex post facto punishment.
Effectiveness of Community Notification
Sex offender notification is a very popular social policy. However, little research has investigated the success of registration and community notification in reducing sex crime rates or preventing recidivism. One of the first studies of community notification was conducted by the Washington State Institute for Public Policy in 1995. No significant differences were found in the re-arrest rates of high-risk sex offenders who were subject to community notification and those who were not. In Iowa, no significant differences were found in the reconviction rates of registered and unregistered sex offenders. About 3% of registered sex offenders were convicted of a new sex crime after 4 years, compared with the 3.5% recidivism rate of unregistered sex offenders. In Wisconsin, it was found that high-risk sex offenders exposed to aggressive community notification actually had higher rates of recidivism (19%) than those about whom little information was publicly disclosed (12%). A multistate study examining the effect of registration and notification laws in 10 states found no systematic reduction in sex crime rates after registration and notification laws were passed. A more recent study conducted in Washington state did find substantial reductions in sex offense recidivism. However, it is unclear whether the changes can be directly attributed to notification or whether they are a result of more stringent sentencing and probation policies.
Unintended Consequences of Community Notification
Community notification laws have been criticized as creating unforeseen negative consequences for victims, communities, and offenders. For instance, victims may be discouraged from reporting sexual abuse, especially if the perpetrator is a family member, because of the potential for the crime to be publicly disclosed. Broad notification that disseminates information about all sex offenders regardless of risk may dilute the community’s ability to determine who is truly dangerous if all offenders are similarly publicized. Finally, the high costs of community notification may take away funding from victims’ treatment, protective services, and foster care programs.
A small but growing body of research has begun to investigate the experiences of sex offenders and the impact of notification on their community reintegration. Research in several states has found that community notification often leads to harassment, vigilantism, and migration for sex offenders. Sex offenders report that public disclosure interferes with their ability to secure housing and employment. Some scholars have speculated that public registries may not be advantageous to a goal of preventing recidivism, because they create obstacles to successful community reentry by limiting education and employment opportunities and by creating social environments marked by shame, loneliness, instability, and psychosocial stress.
The practical, legal, and social consequences of crime may be more severe for sex offenders than for other criminals. Obstacles such as maintaining housing and employment, social stigma, a sense of vulnerability, and relationship problems are recognized as factors that can facilitate recidivism. Criminological research has indicated that employment, positive social bonds, and stability increase the likelihood of successful reintegration for criminal offenders. Social policies that ostracize and disrupt the stability of sex offenders may increase their risk and, therefore, may not be in the best interests of public safety. States that assess risk and reserve more aggressive notification for high-risk offenders may minimize potential unintended negative consequences for lower-risk offenders, with little probability of compromising community safety.
Although each state prohibits harassment or violence toward registered sex offenders, community notification has been known to lead to vigilantism. Though extreme vigilante violence appears to be relatively rare, cases of arson, shootings, hangings, and severe property damage have been documented. Murders of registered sex offenders by vigilantes have occurred in Maine, Washington, and New Hampshire. A survey of sex offenders in Florida found that one third reported being threatened or harassed, 21% suffered property damage, and 5% said they had been physically assaulted or injured. In Kentucky, 16% of male sex offenders and 15% of female sex offenders said that they had been physically attacked. In Indiana and Connecticut, about 20% of sex offenders reported that they had experienced harassment, threats, or property damage, and 10% had been assaulted.
The accuracy of Internet registries has been criticized by the media. The validity of registries can affect their ability to protect the public. In 2003, the Boston Herald reported that the whereabouts of 49% of registered sex offenders in Massachusetts were unknown. Research regarding the accuracy of Kentucky’s sex offender registry revealed that about one quarter of registered addresses might be incorrect. Newspapers in Florida reported that nearly half of the sex offenders on the state’s Internet registry were incarcerated, dead, or missing.
Recidivism, Risk Assessment, and Community Notification Practices
Community notification is a very popular social policy, largely because of the belief that sex offenders have alarmingly high recidivism rates. In actuality, sex offense recidivism is lower than commonly believed. Studies by the U.S. Department of Justice and the Canadian governments suggest that 5% to 14% of sex offenders are re-arrested for new sex crimes within a 3-to 6-year follow-up period. Longer follow-up studies have found that after 15 years, the vast majority (about three quarters) of convicted sex offenders had not been re-arrested for a new sex crime. All these studies involved very large sample sizes ranging from about 4,700 to 29,000 subjects.
There is also a widespread belief that sex offenders do not respond to psychological therapies. Early studies were unable to demonstrate that treatment reduced recidivism. However, more recent research indicates that contemporary cognitive-behavioral sex offender treatment can reduce recidivism by about 40%. A more recent meta-analysis found that 10% of sex offenders who received treatment were re-arrested for new sex crimes, while 17% of untreated sex offenders re-offended. This was a statistically significant difference. A recent experimental design was unable to detect general differences in recidivism between treated and untreated groups but did find that those sex offenders who successfully completed the treatment goals were re-arrested at significantly lower rates than those who did not.
Though most sex offenders do not re-offend sexually over time, and many do not meet the criteria for a paraphilia disorder as defined by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, fourth edition (DSM-IV), some subgroups of sex offenders are dangerous and likely to re-offend. Research consistently suggests that pedophiles who molest boys are at highest risk to re-offend and have the largest number of victims. Rapists of adult women are also among those sex offenders most likely to re-offend, and they are also more likely than other types of sex offenders to use weapons and physically injure their victims. Incestuous offenders consistently have the lowest recidivism rates. At the same time, research has found that many sex offenders have committed more sex crimes than those for which they have been arrested. So, official recidivism rates are likely to underestimate true offense rates. Also, some sex offenders abuse multiple types of victims (i.e., adults and children, or both boys and girls), and official documents may not fully reflect an offender’s patterns and risk factors.
Those challenges notwithstanding, great progress has been made in the ability to assess risk for future sexual violence and estimate the likelihood that a sex offender will commit a new sex crime in the future. Researchers have identified factors statistically associated with recidivism and have combined those factors into risk assessment instruments. In general, the more risk factors a person displays, the more likely he or she is to re-offend. Risk factors most highly correlated with sex offense recidivism include sexual attraction to children, sexual deviance in general, previous arrests and charges for both sexual and nonsexual offenses, male victims, extrafamilial victims, stranger victims, variety of offending behavior, intimacy deficits, noncontact offenses, and age under 25.
Some states use this knowledge of risk factors to assess the likelihood of recidivism and classify sex offenders into categories (i.e., high, low, and moderate risk) for community notification purposes. States that use risk assessment often provide a different amount of information to the public depending on the danger an offender poses to the community. For example, high-risk offenders (for instance, a child molester who victimized multiple prepubescent boys in a cub scout troop) might have their address, photo, and information about their crimes displayed on a public Internet registry, while lower-risk offenders might be subjected to less aggressive community notification. Using risk classification systems benefits states in several ways. They are a more efficient use of resources because more aggressive notification procedures are reserved only for higher-risk individuals. They also allow the public to better identify who poses the most severe threat to women and children in the community. Broad notification policies, on the other hand, weaken citizens’ ability to tell who is truly dangerous, use vast resources to warn communities about sex offenders who may pose very little risk, and can interfere with successful community reentry.
Recent federal policies (i.e., the 2006 Adam Walsh Act) have enhanced registration and notification requirements, so it is likely that community notification will become more inclusive. There is a need for continued research to investigate the effectiveness of community notification in preventing sexual assault.
- Hanson, R. K., & Morton-Bourgon, K. (2005). The characteristics of persistent sexual offenders: A metaanalysis of recidivism studies. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 73(6), 1154-1163.
- Levenson, J. S., & D’Amora, D. (2007). Social policies designed to prevent sexual violence: The emperor’s new clothes? Criminal Justice Policy Review, 18, 168-199.
- Levenson, J. S., & Cotter, L. (2005). The effect of Megan’s Law on sex offender reintegration. Journal of Contemporary Criminal Justice, 21(1), 49-66.
- Sample, L. L., & Bray, T. M. (2003). Are sex offenders dangerous? Criminology and Public Policy, 3(1), 59-82.
- Zevitz, R. G. (2006). Sex offender community notification: Its role in recidivism and offender reintegration. Criminal Justice Studies, 19(2), 193-208.
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