The Registration and Community Notification of Adult Sexual Offenders

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Adopted by the ATSA Executive Board of Directors on April 5, 2010

NOTE: THIS PAPER DOES NOT ADDRESS ISSUES OF REGISTRATION AND NOTIFICATION ON JUVENILES WHO COMMIT SEXUAL OFFENSES DUE TO THE VAST DIFFERENCES BETWEEN ADULTS AND JUVENILES. SEE ATSA’S COMMENTS ON SORNA GUIDELINES FOR OUR POSITION ABOUT JUVENILE REGISTRATION.

History

In 1994, following the 1989 abduction of an 11 year old boy in Minnesota, a federal U.S. law was passed mandating sex offenders to register with local law enforcement agencies so that their current whereabouts were known ("Jacob Wetterling Crimes Against Children and Sexually Violent Offender Registration Act," 1994). In 1996, President Clinton signed "Megan's Law," which required states to disseminate registry information to the public. In 2006 registration and notification requirements were again modified by the Adam Walsh Sex Offender Registration and Notification Act (SORNA) which created a national system for classifying sex offenders based on the conviction offense (see ATSA’s comments on SORNA guidelines). It is estimated that there are now over 600,000 registered sex offenders in the United States.

The goal of registration is to assist law enforcement in tracking and monitoring sex offenders. The goal of community notification is to increase the public's ability to protect itself by warning potential victims that a convicted sex offender lives, works, or attends school nearby, thereby decreasing the incidence of recidivistic sexual violence. Historically, about half of the states assigned offenders to risk levels and notified the public differentially according to the offender's threat to public safety. The remaining states employed broad community notification, publicizing the location of all sex offenders without regard for risk assessment. All 50 states are mandated to maintain Internet websites containing sex offender registration information.

Community notification statutes have been challenged on issues related to rights to privacy as well as their constitutionality. In the fall of 2002, the U.S. Supreme Court heard two cases challenging Megan's Law. The Court upheld the constitutionality of a Connecticut statute allowing sex offenders to be identified on an Internet registry without first holding a hearing to determine their dangerousness to the community ("Connecticut Dept. of Public Safety v. Doe," 2003). In an Alaska case, the Court ruled that registration and notification of offenders sentenced before the law went into effect did not constitute ex post facto punishment ("Smith v. Doe," 2003). The Association for the Treatment of Sexual Abusers has developed a set of recommendations that we believe will facilitate that the original goal of registration and notification - enhanced community safety - is met in an effective manner.

Summary and Recommendations

The Association for the Treatment of Sexual Abusers (ATSA) believes that whenever possible development and implementation of social policies should be based on research. It should be noted that to date, few research studies about community notification have been conducted. The research that has been completed is mixed and does not consistently conclude that community notification reduces recidivism, prevents sex crimes, protects children, or enhances community safety. Importantly, the states (e.g. MN, WA) where community notification has appeared to demonstrate some effectiveness utilize empirically derived risk assessment procedures and publicly identify only high risk offenders.

ATSA strongly supports sex offenders being held responsible for their crimes. When sex offenders are living in the community, it is imperative they be monitored and reintegrated carefully through effective legal supervision and treatment. U.S. federal law requires states to inform the public of the whereabouts of sex offenders. Therefore ATSA offers the following recommendations for implementation of registration and notification based on existing research about the assessment and management of sex offenders:

  1. ATSA strongly supports collaborative efforts between citizens, law enforcement, offenders, and treatment providers to render management, supervision, and rehabilitation services that promote community safety.
  2. Some sex offenders are highly dangerous and require more intensive supervision and treatment interventions.
  3. Community notification practices should include an assessment of risk factors that have been empirically associated with increased recidivism. Public disclosure should be tailored according to the level of threat that an offender poses to a community. This is imperative so the citizenry can more effectively make informed decisions regarding the large number of identified sexual offenders. Broad notification can dilute the public's ability to identify and protect themselves from truly dangerous offenders.
  4. Community notification should always include educational efforts, including factual and research-based information about sexual perpetrators and effective prevention of sexual violence.
  5. ATSA supports continued study into the impact of community notification and its effectiveness. Funding for research investigating the impact and effectiveness of sexual violence prevention policies should be a priority.


Discussion

Registration and notification laws have received widespread support, largely due to the perception that the vast majority of sex offenders will repeat their crimes. Though official recidivism rates underestimate true reoffense rates (because not all criminals are apprehended), research studies by the US Dept. of Justice and the Canadian Government have found that sex offense recidivism rates are much lower than commonly believed. On average, between 5% and 20% of known adult sex offenders will be rearrested for a new sex crime within three to six year follow-up studies. Certain sub-groups, such as pedophiles who molest boys, and rapists of adult women, seem to present the greatest risk over longer term periods. Although extensive media attention is paid to child abductions, such cases rarely occur, and less than 1% of all sex crimes involve murder. Despite myths of "stranger danger," according to the Justice Department, 93% of sexually abused children are molested by family members, close friends or acquaintances. Despite recent data suggesting that contemporary cognitive-behavioral offender treatments can in fact reduce recidivism, early studies indicating that treatment was not successful in helping adult sex offenders have also led to a heightened fear.

Public safety can be enhanced, and limited resources used more efficiently, when the most active notification practices are reserved for those offenders who are at highest risk to reoffend sexually and therefore require the most intensive interventions. The ability to predict sexual dangerousness has improved markedly over the past decade as a result of studies identifying risk factors for violent and sexual recidivism. Procedures and instruments for assessing risk have been developed and refined, and risk for sex offense recidivism can be estimated with moderate accuracy. By classifying offenders into risk groups based on the existence of known risk factors, communities may be able to more accurately identify those sex offenders who pose the greatest threat to public safety. At the same time, differential notification strategies can improve cost-effectiveness. Risk level systems might also decrease some of the negative effects of community notification on lower risk offenders. In fact, many states have decided that to minimize disrupting the stability of low risk offenders in ways that may increase their risk they will only notify the public about offenders who pose a high risk to offend. Given the serious implications of decisions based on risk assessments, these assessment tools should always be administered by skilled, trained, and supervised professionals.

The Adam Walsh Act requires states to move to an offense based classification system, whereby registered sex offenders are categorized according to the severity of their crime of conviction. Such schemes may inadvertently inflate the risk of some offenders while erroneously de-emphasizing the risk of those who plea-bargained to less severe crimes. Unlike actuarial models which have been tested for predictive validity, offense based classification is unproven as a strategy for predicting future offending.

The notification process provides an opportunity to inform and educate the general public and those associated with the offender. It can, when used effectively, allow the community to engage in prevention efforts that simultaneously include offender rehabilitation. Yet, public notification without community involvement and education is less likely to be helpful. After nearly a decade of implementation, there is still minimal research confirming that community notification decreases recidivistic sexual violence. Resources can be more effectively utilized if there is an evidence-based determination of risk with concordant notification procedures.

Victim advocacy groups have also noted that notification may create a negative impact on offenders' children and family members or lead to the inadvertent identification of victims. These possible consequences may discourage victims from reporting sexual abuse by family members or acquaintances, ultimately interfering with the child protection system and decreasing the likelihood that victims will receive therapeutic intervention. Families of offenders can be negatively affected when community notification occurs, whether or not the offender returns to the home. Again, these unintended consequences can be mitigated when risk-based notification decisions are made.

Research suggests that about one-third to one-half of adult sex offenders subjected to community notification experience unintended consequences such as job loss, housing instability, threats or harassment, vigilantism, or property damage. About 19% of adult sex offenders report that these negative consequences have affected other members their households. Notification may actually undermine public safety by exacerbating factors (e.g. unemployment, instability) correlated with criminal recidivism.

In summary, prevention of sexual violence requires a well-planned, comprehensive, inter-disciplinary response. Prevention efforts must begin with developing clear goals and objectives, implementing strategies based on empirical research, and collecting and analyzing data on an ongoing basis. Lawmakers and citizens should advocate for research-based social policies that both protect communities and also support the rehabilitation of perpetrators to effectuate long-term community safety.

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1The focus of this Policy Paper is on sex offender registration and notification in the United States.