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Considering the Victim in the Implementation of Megan's Laws

Alexandra Walker

an author commissioned by
Violence Against Women Online Resources [logo]

Published: August 2001

Introduction

Throughout the 1990s, public concern about the release of sex offenders from prisons into the community led to a flurry of legislative activity. States passed laws establishing databases of individuals convicted of specific sex offenses. In 1994, the federal government took action, passing the Jacob Wetterling Act, requiring all states to establish registries for sex offenders or risk losing federal funding. An amendment, known as "Megan's Law", was added in 1996, requiring states to develop "community notification" programs to make available to the public information about registered sex offenders. The federal laws were named after two children, Jacob Wetterling and Megan Kanka, each victimized by predators: Jacob was 11 years old when he was kidnapped in 1989 and is still missing. Seven-year-old Megan was raped and murdered by a twice-convicted sex offender who lived in her neighborhood.

The proliferation of state and federal laws regulating sex offenders reflects a sincere attempt to prevent sexual assault and spare others the pain afflicting Jacob and Megan's families. Despite their laudable goals, registries and community notification programs have been attacked by critics who claim, among other charges, that the laws:

  • infringe on the rights of offenders;

  • deceive the public by offering them a cure-all to the complex problem of sexual assault and abuse in our society; and

  • suffer from discrepancies in implementation from one state to another.

In their zeal to pass registration and notification laws, few state or federal lawmakers sought input from a diverse group of victims and those who work with victims. Some victim advocates, in addition to therapists who treat sex offenders, have raised concerns about the impact community notification laws might have on victim safety and privacy ( Connecticut Sexual Assault Crisis Services, 1999 ; and Freeman-Longo, 2000 ).

Almost five years after Megan's Law was passed by Congress, what have we learned about community notification? Are these laws making our communities safer? What is the impact on the victims of the offenders subjected to notification? This paper will focus on the mixture of opinions and the limited attempts at evaluating community notification as they relate to victim and community safety. [1] This paper examines notification through the lens of victim safety and privacy rather than through the lens of criminal justice issues, because more analysis from the criminal justice perspective already exists. [2]

How states are implementing community notification laws

Extent of notification

The extent of release to the public of information about a specific sex offender is what distinguishes the three approaches employed by states to implementing community notification laws (Matson and Lieb, 1997). According to the Center for Sex Offender Management (CSOM), a federally-funded project designed to improve the management of sex offenders who are in the community, 19 states conduct broad notification, in which criminal justice agencies release information widely about sex offenders to the public. Fourteen states conduct notification to those deemed at risk from a particular offender, such as child care centers, religious organizations, schools, and other groups that serve children or vulnerable populations. Finally, the remaining 17 states utilize passive notification, where information about sex offenders is made available at local law enforcement offices or a central state agency, should citizens wish to obtain the information ( CSOM, 2001 ).

Which offenders are included in community notification programs?

Most states are required by law to conduct community notification regarding any offender convicted of specific sex offenses (usually a violent sexual offense or a violent sexual offense against a minor). In other states, however, agencies responsible for conducting notification are given the discretion to determine which offenders are subjected to notification. In these states an offender is assessed for the risk he or she poses of reoffending, and a decision is made to conduct notification regarding offenders deemed to be high risk.

Methods of assessing offender risk include scientific risk assessment instruments and multi-disciplinary committees convened to review offender risk. Risk assessment instruments calculate risk based on an inventory of various behaviors and past offenses, assigning points to each element. Several risk assessment instruments are currently being used by jurisdictions to classify offenders as low or high risk, usually categorizing them according to a three-tiered system of classification ( CSOM, 2001 ). Some experts have expressed concern that there is no consistent tool being used to determine risk, and in many states, risk is not determined by trained professionals or by the use of researched and reliable risk scales ( Freeman-Longo, 2001 ).

Methods of notification

Criminal justice agencies around the country employ a variety of methods to fulfill community notification obligations. The most limited method makes available information on registered sex offenders only to those who seek it. Interested citizens must request permission by phone, computer, or mail to obtain information on registered sex offenders.

The distribution of flyers (either by a criminal justice official, by mail, or by public posting) about the offender, to people who live within a certain distance from the offender, is used by criminal justice officials in some jurisdictions. This often involves a law enforcement or probation/parole officer going door-to-door to personally inform residents that an offender will be moving into their neighborhood.

Several jurisdictions throughout the country convene open meetings of community members to release information about a specific sex offender. In addition to providing basic information about the offender who will reside in the community, a limited amount of general information about sex offenders, the crime of sexual assault, and personal safety may be provided.

The broadest form of notification currently in practice is releasing a notice to the media informing them about a specific sex offender.

Information released about a specific offender

Regardless of the method of notification utilized, the following information on each sex offender is typically provided: a physical description, a photograph, a description of the crime for which the offender was convicted, the age(s) of the victim(s), and the approximate or current address of the offender ( CSOM, 2001 ).

Review of research

Perhaps due to the widespread popularity of registration and notification programs, few researchers have sought to evaluate the effect these programs are having. In Washington State, which originated the idea of community notification ( CSOM, 2001 ), a 1995 Washington State Institute for Public Policy study looked at the relationship between community notification and recidivism. Recidivism, it must be noted, refers to those reoffenses that have been adjudicated by the criminal justice system (in contrast to reoffenses that have occurred but have not been reported to law enforcement agencies). The study found that there were no significant differences in the levels of recidivism for those sex offenders who had been subjected to notification and those who had not been subjected to notification (22 % compared to 19 %). There was a difference, however, in how quickly offenders were arrested for new offenses: the notification group was arrested sooner than those offenders released without notification ( CSOM, 2001 ).

Two other studies have examined the influence of community notification laws on public attitudes and behavior. A 1997 study, involving a random telephone survey of 400 residents from both rural and urban regions of Washington State, found that a "vast majority of respondents indicated they were more safety conscious and had a heightened awareness of their surroundings as a result of community notification." Yet respondents' perception of safety consciousness is mitigated by another finding in the same study concluding that respondents who were aware that convicted sex offenders were living in their neighborhoods reported no change in their likelihood to leave children unsupervised ( Phillips, 1998 ).

The Wisconsin Study

In December of 2000, a more comprehensive study was released assessing the perceptions of and reactions to community notification in Wisconsin ( Zevitz and Farkas, 2000 ). Findings are drawn from surveys conducted of 704 Wisconsin residents at 22 community notification meetings, surveys from 188 police and sheriff's departments and 77 probation and parole agents, and from in-person interviews with 30 convicted sex offenders. Results of the study reveal that while over half of citizens (56 %) attending community meetings believed that they received helpful information to help them "safeguard against a potential threat by the offender," almost two-thirds (67 %) left the meeting feeling "more concerned than before" ( Zevitz and Farkas, 2000 ). The study's authors speculate that an inverse relationship exists between the amount of information presented in community meetings about the release of a sex offender and the audience's level of anxiety and fear.

The law enforcement agencies surveyed generally believed that the additional work and investment of resources required by community notification was balanced by the benefits of the law, such as increased sharing of information about specific offenders between criminal justice agencies. Law enforcement respondents in the study identified three issues that citizen participants attending community meetings were most concerned about:

  • The fear of being victimized by the sex offender who is the subject of notification;

  • The nature of the offender's criminal past and current conviction; and,

  • Determining who will be responsible for monitoring the offender in the community.

From the perspective of the sex offenders interviewed, community notification had "adversely affected their transition from prison to the outside world." While all of the offenders expressed concern for their physical safety after the community was notified of their release, only one offender had an experience that could be considered retaliation by a citizen, also referred to as "vigilantism." It is worth noting that, when asked about incidents of vigilantism, only six percent of the law enforcement agencies responding knew of incidents of harassment toward sex offenders that had occurred since the notification law took effect.

The study found notification created other hardships for offenders, noting that both parole/probation officers and sex offenders themselves blamed community notification for the difficulty sex offenders were having in obtaining housing.

Challenges of implementation

Negative impact on victims

None of the studies assessed the attitudes toward community notification held by an obvious segment of the community: the victims of the offenders. If not conducted carefully, community notification can inadvertently reveal the identity of the victim, particularly in cases where the offender and the victim are in the same family or when notification is being conducted in the neighborhood where the offender's victim lives. Indeed, there are reports that victims' identities have been disclosed as a result of community notification ( CSOM, 2001 ). A landmark study about the effect of sexual assault on victims found that the "fear of others knowing" that they had been sexually assaulted ranked top among victim concerns that influenced their decision to report or not report the assault ( Kilpatrick, Edmonds & Seymour, 1992 ).

To prevent the inadvertent disclosure of victim identity, a number of jurisdictions have developed protocols to guide criminal justice officials in implementing a notification program. The Wisconsin study, for example, cites the fact that the state has guidelines on how to conduct notification that address the danger that a victim's privacy may be violated through notification and "underscore the grave desire that the situation be avoided" ( Zevitz and Farkas, 2000 ).

No studies have explored the psychological and emotional impact of the release of information about the offender on the victim and so-called secondary victims (loved ones of the victim). Can notification trigger psychological and emotional responses in victims, especially if some time has passed after the offense occurred? Are agencies, that are authorized to notify the community and individual victims adequately prepared to arrange for support that victims and secondary victims might need?

Creating a false sense of security

Victim advocates and others have registered their concern that notification might cultivate a false sense of security if community members focus on protecting themselves and their children from the one "identified" sex offender in their neighborhood ( CONNSACS, 1999 and CSOM, 1997). Victim advocates point to the well-established fact that most sexual assault victims, particularly children and teenagers, know their offender. By focusing attention to the risk posed by an identified offender, notification may be reinforcing the widely-held belief that most sex offenders are strangers to their victims.

While states are employing different standards and methods for determining which sex offenders should be subjected to notification, nowhere are communities being notified of all the convicted sex offenders about which criminal justice agencies have knowledge. Further, the percentage of sex offenders recognized by the criminal justice system represents only a small portion of individuals committing sexual assaults in any community. Numerous studies over the past 20 years have documented the fact that sexual assault is one of the most under-reported violent crimes ( Ringel, 1997 ). Those cases that are reported face high attrition rates due to a variety of factors, including victim fears, shortage of skilled police and prosecutors for handling these cases, and plea bargains that reduce the charges to a lesser non-sexual crime ( Kilpatrick, 2000 ). Looked at another way, notification and registration laws are protecting the public from only a small percentage of people who commit sexual assault.

Creating panic in communities

As illustrated by the Wisconsin study, which found that an equal number of citizens left community meetings more concerned about the sex offender as those who felt less concerned, community notification has the potential to create anxiety among residents in a given neighborhood where a sex offender is moving. In some communities this panic has led to citizens harassing offenders and their families, although reports of violent retaliation against an offender are limited ( CSOM, 2001 ). Where correct addresses of sex offenders are not maintained, as is the case for as many as 50 percent of sex offenders in some states, individuals who occupy a residence incorrectly listed as belonging to a sex offender may be subjected to harassment.

Deflecting attention and resources from other solutions to ending sexual assault

A number of professional groups have expressed concern that community notification may be promoted as the magic bullet for protecting communities from sexual assault ( ATSA, 1996 ; CONNSACS, 1999 ; and Freeman-Longo, 2000 ). As legislators and other policymakers put their faith in notification programs, attention and resources could be diverted from other activities that promise to reduce sexual assault, such as public health approaches to ending violent sexual behavior, improved police and prosecution responses, specialized sentences and alternatives, and specialized supervision and treatment for sex offenders ( ATSA, 1996 ; and CONNSACS, 1999 ).

Promising practices for implementation that emphasize victim and community safety

Fortunately, input from sex offender experts and victim advocates combined with the promising experiences of individual communities point to several strategies for implementing community notification programs to meet the goals of victim and community safety.

Approach community notification as an opportunity to educate citizens about sexual assault and protective measures for reducing adult and children's risk of sexual assault.

Citizens must never be allowed to believe that the sex offender about whom they are being notified is the only threat in their community. As previously discussed, when conducting notification, communities need to be educated about the dangers of sexual assault and strategies for reducing the risk of sexual assault. The Wisconsin study suggests that providing the public with strategies to address the fears generated by the release of a sex offender into the neighborhood can reduce residents' anxiety.

Incorporating education as an essential component to community notification has been recommended by groups of professionals, including the Association for the Treatment of Sexual Abusers and the National Advisory Council on Violence Against Women, and invitees to the 2000 Summit on Sex Offender Management, sponsored by the Department of Justice.

The City of Mesa, Arizona and the State of Connecticut are two places where general education about sexual assault is a standard component of community notification. Both hold meetings for community members where they deliver general information about protection from sexual assault as well as information on the offender being released. Connecticut utilizes a multi-disciplinary team to conduct community notification, including a sexual assault victim advocate, sex offender treatment provider, and probation/parole agent.

General education about sexual assault, provided in the context of notification, can help to counter the myth that sexual assault is primarily &145;stranger-danger.' Parents and others can be reminded that the majority of people who commit sexual assault know their victims on some level. This knowledge should influence the protection strategies people employ for themselves and their children.

Utilize a multi-disciplinary approach to community notification.

Involving law enforcement agencies, probation and parole departments, and organizations that serve victims of sexual assault can ensure that victim and community concerns about sex offenders are addressed. The Wisconsin study noted the benefits of the collaboration between law enforcement and parole/probation agencies in resolving existing and potential problems associated with notification. The experience of the State of Connecticut reinforces the importance of the participation of victim advocacy organizations to address victim safety concerns in the process of notification, as well as, to instruct citizens on strategies for reducing their risk of victimization.

Involving other professionals in community notification can include seeking their input regarding how notification is implemented, in addition to involving them in community meetings and other notification methods.

Develop written policies and training protocols for conducting community notification.

The Wisconsin study points to the importance of policy development for guiding criminal justice agencies in conducting community notification. The state developed guidelines for agencies that explicitly warn against revealing the identity of the victim in the process of notifying communities and the researchers reported that no victim had been inadvertently identified through community notification ( Zevitz and Farkas, 2000 ). The State of Colorado and the City of Mesa, Arizona also standardized the process of community notification by developing a policy for agencies to follow. Such policies typically address how to conduct community meetings, protecting the privacy of victims, and other considerations relevant to all jurisdictions.

Plan for support the victim and any secondary victims may need as a result of the notification.

Some agencies authorized to conduct notification, such as police and probation/parole departments, have in-house victim advocates who either work with victims or can assess a victim's needs and refer the victim elsewhere. As previously discussed, the victim may require some assistance planning for her or his safety or coping with the emotional impact of the offender's release. Careful consideration of how a victim and secondary victims are notified of an offender's release can minimize the potential trauma associated with the release.

Conclusion

In the absence of empirical data regarding the effectiveness of community notification laws, it is imperative that agencies authorized with releasing information about sex offenders to the public consider the potential risks and benefits of that information. This paper has identified some of the concerns notification raises with respect to victims and public safety and described briefly some of the strategies in practice to address those concerns. Given changes in law, personnel, and available resources, ongoing and meaningful consultation with victims themselves and advocates who work with victims is the best avenue for crafting a notification program sensitive to victims.

References

Association for the Treatment of Sexual Abusers (1996). Community Notification Position Statement. Beaverton, OR.

Brakeman-Colbath, Beverly (1999). Sex Offender Registration/Community Notification -- It's Not That Simple. Hartford, CT: Connecticut Sexual Assault Crisis Services, Inc.

Center for Sex Offender Management (2001). Community Notification and Education. Silver Spring, MD.

Freeman-Longo, Robert, MRC, LPC (2000). Revisiting Megan's Law and Sex Offender Registration: Prevention or Problem. Louisville, KY: American Probation and Parole Association.

Kilpatrick, D.G. (2000). Rape and Sexual Assault: An Overview. Charleston, SC: National Violence Against Women Prevention Research Center, Medical University of South Carolina.

Kilpatrick, D.G., Edmunds, C., Seymour, A. (1992). Rape in America: A report to the nation. Charleston, SC: National Victim Center & the Crime Victims Research and Treatment Center, Medical University of South Carolina.

Phillips, Dretha M. (1998). Community Notification as Viewed By Washington's Citizens. Olympia, WA: Washington State Institute for Public Policy.

Ringel, C. (1997, November). Criminal Victimization in 1996, Changes 1995-1996 with Trends 1993-1996, NCJ-165812. Washington, DC: Bureau of Justice Statistics, U.S. Department of Justice.

Zevitz, Richard G. and Mary Ann Farkas (2000). Sex Offender Community Notification: Assessing the Impact in Wisconsin. Washington, D.C.: National Institute of Justice.



[1] For an examination of issues related to the constitutional challenges of these laws, their impact on offenders, and a thorough review of how states are implementing these laws, refer to Community Notification and Education ( 2001 ) by the Center for Sex Offender Management.

[2] Contact the Center for Sex Offender Management for articles analyzing community notification from the perspective of the criminal justice system: www.csom.org.