habitual sex offender has become a major issue in American society today. Media reports on the number of children killed in recent years fuel this concern, including reports where a sex offender who has been released from prison at the end of his sentence takes and kills another victim. Various states have passed new laws and added restrictions on sex offenders as a result, and one of the issues now concerns notification, meaning whether the neighbors of a released sex offender should be told that the offender is living among them. Traditionally, parole or release from prison has been a matter kept between the offender and the state, and the people in the community are not told where released sex offenders are living. Because of the notoriety accompanying some recent cases, the public now demands to be told when a sex offender is living in the community. While these laws may seem appealing, they raise numerous issues of privacy which, while applying only to sex offenders today, could apply to others tomorrow. They also carry the potential for adverse community action outside the law. They arguably prevent any chance of real rehabilitation.
The argument for notification is clear -- parents want to protect their children from potential harm by knowing that sex offenders are nearby so they can warn their children and take extra precautions. Precisely what precautions they might take is an important question that proponents of these laws often fail to answer. Such laws derive specifically from a case in New Jersey where a convicted pedophile sexually assaulted and killed a 7-year-old girl named Megan Kanka, his neighbor. The authorities had not informed the community that this man and two other convicted child abusers had moved into a home across the street from Megan's house. New Jersey later passed what is known as "Megan's Law," which requires that the community be notified when a sex offender is released into the area (Popkin and Simons 64).
Semel suggests that such a law should be examined carefully to see if it is really needed or if politicians are simply making use of a hot topic to gain political favor:
We ought to be suspicious whenever politicians make haste to pass a crime bill in the name of a particular crime victim or in the wake of a particular tragedy, ostensibly to ensure that it will not recur: Legislation by anecdote simply does not make for responsible public policy?
not when it is Three Strikes Laws, given political life after the killing of Polly Klaas; not when it is the Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act, passed on the one-year anniversary of the Oklahoma City bombing; and not when it is Megan's Law, rushed through Congress at the urging of the bereaved parents of Megan Kanka (Semel 21).
The original New Jersey law was part of a comprehensive statutory reform, and one provision allowed for the civil commitment of sexual offenders who are finishing their prison sentences of a psychiatrist determines that they would be a danger to themselves or others if they were released. Megan's Law was another portion of this reform. It required prosecutors to classify released offenders on the basis of their risk status, and there are three risk levels to be considered:
For a "tier one" offender (low risk), only law enforcement agencies within the community in which the offender is released are to be provided with warnings. For a "tier two" offender (moderate risk), school and community organizations are to be alerted as well as law enforcement agencies. For a "tier three" offender (high risk), notice, by means of flyers and mailings, is to be given to the entire community as well as notice to the specific organizations mentioned above ("Megan's Law: Community Notification for the Release of Sex Offenders" 3).
Once the federal government passed its version of this law, the idea spread and was taken up by states across the country. The federal statute called on states to enact registration and notification laws by September 1997 or lose part of their federal law enforcement funds. In effect, this imposed the idea of a Megan's Law on all states, since none wants to lose this funding. The last of the states to do so was New Mexico, which missed the deadline but which had a law pending in 1998. These laws have been popular, and one poll showed that 89% of adults favored such laws. Observers note that these laws are flawed, for they vary greatly between states because Congress did not specify "how, how much, or to whom states must release registration information" (Johnson 9). One study suggests the different forms these laws take, noting that for 18 states, "public officials notified vulnerable people or organizations, including potential victims, child-care agencies, and schools" (Johnson 9); 15 states "gave the public access to registration information but did not actively warn the public about the releases of offenders" (Johnson 9); and some states "require people requesting information to demonstrate a need to know, such as a residence close to a suspected offender" (Johnson 9). Three states use the tier system developed in New Jersey.
Even those who support notification laws may admit that the act of notification in itself leads to another problem -- what is the community to do with this knowledge? Notification itself seems to have no practical value:
After all, when it comes down to it, what are the now-informed neighbors of a recently released rapist and/or child molester to do? Keep their children permanently indoors? Move away? The only really practical step would be to impress upon their new neighbor the advisability of his moving on, i.e., "vigilantism"?
something most decent people would, if they were capable of it at all, find most repellent (Decter 61-62).
This is one of the main arguments against notification, the possibility that it will only incite the community to take vigilante action. If it does, it would create crime rather than reduce it. Decter opposes vigilantism but prefers to blame any such action on the failures of the justice system:
Vigilantism is certainly not to be taken lightly. Yet anyone thinking seriously about how to forestall it would not... be worrying about the possible stigmatization of released sex offenders. He would, rather, be worrying about how to restore a little sanity to a criminal-justice system that, when it comes to dealing with really serious crime, has been rendered virtually impotent by a now merely automatic and mindless obsession with the rights of the criminals (Decter 62).
There is actually evidence that notification can lead to vigilante activity. A child molester's house was burned down by someone in Snohomish County, Washington to keep him from living in his old neighborhood after his release from prison. Residents were warned of the man's return by state-mandated notices posted by the sheriff's department (Biema 58). The town of Alturas, California saw nearly 1,500 people, the largest crowd in the town's history, demonstrate on the courthouse steps in a town with a population of only 3,300. Some in the community placed photographs of the offender with a black "X" across his face in different parts of town. Such responses raise concern among some legal experts:
C]ivil libertarians fear that the drive to secure communities from predators will trample civil rights and possibly hurt a great many innocent people. To opponents of the new measures, the new "civil commitment" laws are the most threatening. They allow a state to continue incarcerating sex offenders after their sentences are complete?-even for the rest of their lives?-if a state panel deems them likely to commit further crimes (Popkin and Simons 67).
An editorial in the New York Times opposed laws on notification, mentioning vigilantism as only one of the reasons for opposing such provisions. Another reason cited was that notification laws could "destroy the efforts of thousands of law-abiding former sex offenders to rebuild their lives." The editorial also wonders why sex offenders are treated differently from other criminals. Repeater rates are quite high for this group, but there are arguments about what this means. In any case, the editorial notes,
Community-notification laws do little or nothing to prevent a sex offender from striking again; they simply make it more likely that the offender will be hounded from one town to another (Decter 61).
This may even contribute to the problem as offenders move away from the supportive influence of friends and family.
In any case, these laws are already going beyond sex offenders. There are similar laws in some states for other violent felons as well, and more and more communities are fighting the placement of parolees in their area. Local groups across the country have tried to block former convicts from settling in their communities, and many are pressing their state assemblies for tougher detention laws and parole conditions, while civil libertarians state "that notification laws are unconstitutional and have the effect of illegally keeping people in custody after they have…