Public notification laws were enacted in response to horrific crimes and in hopes to prevent future recidivism. One purpose of this paper is to examine the literature regarding whether public notification serves its intended purposes of reduced recidivism, motivating community members to report sex offenders’ suspicious behavior, and to deter sex offenders. In addition, this paper analyzes sex offender reintegration from a symbolic interactionism perspective, proposes educated public notifications (EPNs), examines the strengths, weaknesses and feasibility of EPNs and discusses how to evaluate their efficacy.
One social problem that affects most communities in North America is the issue of sex offenders’ post incarceration reintegration into communities in a way that promotes their success so that they will not reoffend. An issue that exacerbates this problem of reintegration is community members’ perception of sex offenders, as the media often portrays them as sex-starved lunatics, roaming the streets of the community with their knuckles dragging on the ground searching for fresh victims (Quinn, Forsyth, & Mullen-Quinn, 2004). One reaction to this problem, instituted in all 50 states, was to enact public notification laws (Lafond, 2005). These laws require local law enforcement agencies to notify members in the community of which a sex offender will be released that s/he will be living in their neighborhoods (Gaines, 2006). The information that is part of the public notification comes from sex offender registries, which contains offenders’ addresses, photographs, offence descriptions, and victims’ ages (Gaines).
Do these laws achieve their purposes of deterring sex offenders from reoffending and helping police solve sex crimes? Are these laws and community members’ reactions to them inadvertently increasing recidivism? The purpose of this paper is to answer these questions, analyze the problem through a symbolic interactionism perspective, propose a concrete action that can address these problems, examine the strengths, weaknesses and feasibility of the action, discuss how to evaluate the efficacy of these actions, and point out any resulting ethical issues.
Public notification laws were quickly enacted after two horrific crimes in different states. They have been in place for over a decade in all 50 states in an attempt to address this problem of successful sex offender reintegration (Petrunik, 2002). Most states have a three-tiered system (Petrunik). In the first and lowest risk tier, public notification is restricted to law enforcement agencies (Petrunik). In the second tier, schools, day care centers and other community organizations that need to be informed are notified (Petrunik). In the third tier, designated for the highest risk sex offenders, the general public is notified (Petrunik). For comparison purposes, Britain (Thomas, 2003) and most of Canada (Petrunik, 2003) have sex offender registries but they are not open to the public.
Petrunik (2003) likens the swift and radical action of the US in imposing public notification to a hare and the slow and cautious approach that Canadians have taken in developing sex offender registries as a tortoise. Canadian laws have several ways to address high risk offenders’ behavior upon release therefore making public notification laws less necessary. Firstly, the highest risk offenders are usually prevented from reintegration. At the time of sentencing, sex offenders can be designated as a “dangerous offender” if the court can prove they are incorrigible (Petrunik). If designated a “dangerous offender,” the offender will be incarcerated and reviewed every two years for parole until parole board members (who are ex-police chiefs, lawyers, psychologists, corrections managers, etc.) are convinced that the offender’s risk to the community is manageable (Petrunik). The majority of these offenders are never released. Another piece of Canadian legislation is the “section 810” which is similar to a probation order such that when an offender is released, he is prohibited from contacting children and frequenting places where children might go (Petrunik). If he is caught, he can be subject to another two years incarceration (Petrunik). In addition, the Long Term Offender legislation was enacted in 1995 in which high risk offenders being released were subjected to a ten year probation period (Petrunik). Any violations of conditions can result in a two year return to prison (Petrunik). Each time they are returned, the ten year probation period is reset to the beginning (Petrunik).
In 1995 and in 1998, Manitoba and Ontario initiated laws that allowed police to notify a community if a very high risk sex offender would be released (Petrunik). None of the provinces have legislation that makes public notification mandatory. Alberta (known for its exceptionally conservative citizens) is currently the only province in which members of the public can access a government web site that provides information about high risk sex offenders (Petrunik). In all the other provinces, notification is carried out by police only in exceptional circumstances (Petrunik). In addition, Canada has a national sex offender registry that can be accessed only by law enforcement officials. It contains sex offenders’ names, addresses (it is illegal to not report a change of address), DNA samples, and current photographs (Petrunik).
Laws requiring sex offenders to register are not new in the US (Lafond, 2005). In 1947, Californian law initiated laws requiring sex offenders to register (Lafond). Washington State legislated the first public notification law in 1990 after a seven year old boy was sexually mutilated and raped in Tacoma (Abrams, 2005). The legislation gave law enforcement agencies discretion to release information about a sex offender if he was a high risk to reoffend (Abrams).
Other states followed California’s lead in 1996 after a seven year old girl named Megan was lured into an apartment to see a puppy in 1994 (Winick, 2003). The apartment was across the street from her house and was rented by three sex offenders who met in prison (Winick). She was raped and murdered (Winick). The public notification law became known as Megan’s law (Winick). There were three main purposes of Megan’s law. First, it was hypothesized that if people knew a sex offender was living in their community, they would take precautionary measures (Zevitz, 2006). For example, the case was made that if Megan’s parents knew about the three sex offenders living across the street from their house, they would have watched their daughter more closely (Lafond, 2005). A second purpose of public notification laws was so that community members could play a role in policing their communities and making them safer by watching sex offender’s behavior and reporting suspicious behavior to the police. For instance, pedophiles lurking around playgrounds talking to children would constitute a high risk behavior (Lafond). A third purpose was to provide sex offenders with extra motivation or deterrence to not reoffend as it was thought that having community members’ watch and report their behavior would serve as a deterrent for them (Abrams, 2005). Has public notification served these intended purposes? If these three purposes were fulfilled, public notification would reduce recidivism.
Do public notification laws reduce recidivism?
In Washington State, Shram and Milloy (1995) compared 90 offenders who were the subject of public notification to 90 matched sex offenders who had not been the subject of public notification. They found no significant differences between these two groups regarding recidivism. They found that the sex offenders in both groups had a 42% general recidivism rate and 14% of them reoffended in a sexual way regardless of public notification.
Zevitz (2006) compared recidivism rates of those that were extensively notified (n=47) to sex offenders who had notification completed using limited disclosure (n=166). After controlling for demographic and criminal factors, Zevitz found that these two groups had no significant difference in terms of recidivism rates regarding any type of crime (38%) or sex crimes (19%). Therefore, from this limited research, it can be suggested that notification has no significant effect on recidivism either by raising it due to the stress it causes or lowering it.
Do community members report suspicious behavior and take precautions?
Finn (1997) extensively reviewed the literature and could not find evidence that public notification increased the community’s safety or assisted police investigation of sex crimes. Theoretically, if sex offenders reoffend, and community members report suspicious behavior, then sex offenders who were the subject of public notification should have shorter time periods to re-arrest as hypothetically several community members are watching them rather than just police members. Zevitz (2006) found that public notification did not shorten the time it took to recommit sex offenders therefore suggesting that community members did not alert police to sex offenders engaging in suspicious behavior.
Researchers (i.e. Beck & Travis, 2006; Caputo & Brodsky, 2004; Simpson, Clingermeyer, Ramsey, & Travis, 2004) usually find that when community members are made aware that a sex offender is living in their community, they are more likely to take precautionary measures. Measures that were studied were avoiding perceived unsafe areas in the day and night, changing daily activities, installing extra locks, getting a guard dog, having a weapon in the house, adding outside lighting, taking self defense courses, and carrying a weapon (Beck & Travis, Simpson et al.). Therefore, it appears that people do not report suspicious behavior but do engage in precautions to protect themselves, their families and their communities.
Do public notification laws serve as a deterrent for sex offenders?
Public notification can have several deleterious effects on sex offenders and community members. For example, after public notification, some community members express their revulsion of the offender’s crimes through vigilantism perpetrated against the offenders and their families. For example, a sex offender’s car was firebombed on a busy street in a Californian city potentially hurting several innocent victims. Also, many sex offenders have experienced angry mobs outside their residences throwing rocks at them or their residences (Abrams, 2005). In 1996, a sex offender was released from prison and settled into a low-cost apartment building in Seattle, Washington. A public notification posted in the newspaper caused mass hysteria when he was described as a sadistic child rapist who admitted during group therapy that he fantasized about raping little girls (Winick, 2003). Community members met and fanned the fire of hysteria and panic which led to vigilante acts of burning the apartment building and driving him out of the community (Winick).
Innocent victims have also been the victims of vigilantism (Lafond, 2005). For instance, a sex offender’s dog was decapitated in Washington State and a family was viciously harassed after moving into an apartment in Kansas, previously rented by a sex offender and being mistaken for the sex offender and his family (Lafond). A man in New Jersey was awakened by five gunshots coming through his bedroom window and wall which were meant for the downstairs neighbor who was a registered sex offender (Lafond). Another man in Texas was viciously beaten by four men after playing with children in a playground as the perpetrators assumed he was a pedophile who had lived close by (Lafond).
Researchers have found that public notification tends to create obstacles for sex offenders in terms of attaining stable housing and employment (Abrams, 2005, Zevitz & Farkas, 2000b, Zevitz & Farkas, 2006). For example, over half of sex offenders in Abrams’ (2005) study reported they were banned from a residence due to notification (Abrams). Zevitz and Farkas (2006) found that 66% of parole or probation officers could not find housing for high risk sex offenders and some of these sex offenders had to live in a minimum security correctional center instead. Zevitz and Farkas (2000b) found that 83% of their sample of 30 high risk sex offenders in Wisconsin were banned from renting residences.
In addition, almost half of Abrams (2005) participants also reported employment problems as they either had difficulty attaining employment or were harassed by co-workers once employed. Zevitz and Farkas (2000b) found that 57% of their participants lost or were refused employment due to public notification.
Just under half of Abrams (2005) participants and 77% of Zevitz and Farkas’s (2000b) participants had negative experiences with neighbors as they and/or their families were subjected to name-calling and/or neighborhood children were not allowed to play with the sex offenders’ children. Furthermore, 26.5% of sex offenders in Abrams (2005) study were subjected to property damage. Also 77% of Zevitz and Farkas’s (2000b) participants and 31.1% of Abrams’s participants were subjected to threats or actual acts of violence, such as having rocks thrown at them. One sex offender noted that his wife’s job offer was withdrawn after it became known that she was married to a sex offender.
Researchers (Abrams, 2005; Brannon, Levenson, Fortney and Baker, 2007) found that surveyed sex offenders did not think that community notification served to deter their behavior. On a scale of 1 to 5 in which 5 represented strongly disagree with the statement that notification deterred their behavior, a mean response of 4.1 was obtained (Abrams). In general, sex offenders reported that public notification negatively affected them and that many thought that it was a form of state sanctioned harassment (Abrams).
Another negative effect of public notification on sex offenders is that it can lead to self-deprecatory attribution effects (Winick, 2003). Being labeled a sex offender can become the person’s essential identity (Winick) when actually these people can also be businesspeople, teachers, parents etc. The process of public notification also has the connotation that the urge to commit sexual crimes is a stable deficit within the offender, that the urge is uncontrollable, and that the community is expecting failure (Winick). If a person labels himself as a sex offender, thinks of it as a stable deficit, thinks of sexual urges as uncontrollable, and expects failure, then these beliefs can contribute to choosing to commit another sex crime (Winick).
In general, public notification can have deleterious effects on sex offenders. It can serve to permanently marginalize and exclude them from the community and frame them as outcasts requiring indeterminate management (Levi, 2000). Public rejection and humiliation can exacerbate offender’s already high levels of stress as reintegration is an already stressful event without making it worse with public notification (Farkas & Stichman, 2002). Subjects of public notification can be rejected, harassed, and humiliated which together with the instability they encounter when constantly changing neighborhoods and employment to escape harassment may contribute to their choice to reoffend as it augments anger, stress, and an image that they are unworthy human beings incapable of positive change (Lafond, 2005). Stress, rejection and instability are factors that can contribute to offending (Lafond, 2005). In addition, offenders may be less likely to plead guilty to a sex offence knowing that public notification may plague them after incarceration (Farkas & Stichman, 2002).
Not only can public notification have deleterious effects on sex offenders, it can also have adverse effects on community members. For example, it can promote a false sense of safety if people think they know where sex offenders are because more than 75% of sex crimes against children are perpetrated by people the victim already knew (Sample & Bray, 2003). In addition, parents may not allow their children to play outside or go to friends’ houses which can instill a sense of paranoia at an early age (Winick, 2003). Heightened fear and suspiciousness of going outside, instilled at an early age, could be a contributing factor to developing agoraphobia in adult years. Also, children may see their parents and neighbors calling names and harassing sex offenders, which may model and reinforce bullying and judgmental attitudes. Furthermore, public notification of incest crimes may inadvertently expose victims’ names, which may lead to victims experiencing further trauma (Digiorgio-Miller, 2002). Some incest victims may actually be deterred from reporting sex crimes knowing that public notification will occur (Winick). Recidivism of incest offenders ranges between 4 to 10%; therefore public notification of these offenders may have more harm than benefits (Sample & Bray, 2003).
In addition, a flood of public notifications can lead to saturation such that there are simply too many offences for community members to remember and people stop listening (Lafond). Furthermore, public notifications can cause unnecessary fear as most sex offenders do not reoffend anyway.
Communication within communities can also be affected. Simpson et al. (2004) found that community notification in Hamilton County, Ohio reduced community member’s sense of attachment to their community. In addition, these community members were less inclined to communicate with neighbors as a result of community notification thus reducing community cohesion.
In general, public notification of released sex offenders in the US was a reaction to two or three horrific crimes that the media played repeatedly (Garfinkle, 2003). As a result, people’s emotions such as fear and disgust were aroused and motivated them to act strongly and vindictively against all released sex offenders in hopes of preventing recidivism (Garfinkle). Quinn et al. (2004) described this process as a “socially constructed panic” that the media and policy makers used to quickly enact public notification laws. However, not all sex offenders should be the focus of these efforts as most sex offenders do not reoffend. For example, Lanagan and Levin (2002) found that 2.5% of rapists reoffend within 4 years of prison release whereas 20% of men convicted of assault or murder reoffended within four years. In addition, more than 75% of sex crimes are committed by someone the victim knew, therefore, while community members have their attention on strangers in the community hoping to prevent sexual assault, their uncles, grandfathers, etc. may be in their homes sexually assaulting their children. Therefore, public notification laws do not prevent the majority of sexual crimes. However, if one single sexual assault or murder could be prevented, these laws may be justified, but there is little evidence suggesting that these public notifications effectively reduce recidivism.
Potential positive effects of public notification
There are several possible positive effects of public notification. For example, it can promote a feeling of community safety (Gaines, 2006). If people know where certain sex offenders live, parents may feel a sense of safety and control as they can watch where their children go and with whom they associate with (Winick, 2003). In addition, community members may feel satisfaction that they may be part of preventing sex crimes perpetrated in their communities by watching for suspicious behavior in their communities (Lafond). Furthermore, creating communication between community and law enforcement members may also enhance the liaison between community and police which can lead to more reporting of suspicious behavior and persons in the community which can lead to prevention of crimes and better image of law enforcement (Gaines). Theoretically, public notification should help to prevent crimes if people use the information to monitor and report suspicious sex offenders’ behavior rather than to perpetrate vigilante acts.
Problem Analysis Using Symbolic Interactionism
The theory of symbolic interactionism holds that meaning, language, and thought are created collectively and can create who a person is in a given society and how s/he becomes socialized in a community (Kleinknecht, 2007). Meaning refers to how people act and treat others based on the meaning they attribute to others. In our society, media tend to portray sex offenders as sadistic monsters or predators lurking and roaming in search of prey (Quinn et al., 2004).
Language refers to how a society assigns meaning through symbols, especially words (Kleinknecht, 2007). In the US, words such as “sadistic, predator, and prey” have been used to describe sex offenders. The connotations of these words suggest that sex offenders are unredeemable animals who are unable to think or feel. It is interesting to note that the American name for their criminal justice initiatives regarding sex offenders is entitled “sexually violent predators” whereas the Canadian legislation is entitled “high risk offenders” (Petrunik, 2003). These two different labels demonstrate how different societies use different language which may produce different reactions to sex offenders.
People’s thoughts modify interpretation of symbols (Kleinknecht, 2007). When people are notified of a sex offender moving into their neighborhood, many people think in a NIMBY way (Not in my backyard). In other words, people realize that these sex offenders have to go somewhere, but they do not want them in their communities. With education about sex offenders living in the community, people may learn to find ways to promote safety in the community rather than try to drive the sex offender out of the community only to have him reoffend in someone else’s community.
Detective Robert Shilling of the Seattle Police Force took an innovative approach to the problem of NIMBY and vigilantism after public notification. During a presentation made to the British Columbia Criminal Justice Association (BCCJA) in October, 2007 (which the writer attended), Det. Shilling stated that positive social change could not be accomplished by spreading hurt and hatred in society. He realized that vigilantism was partly fuelled by people’s ignorance based on sensational incidents and therefore he dedicated his efforts to turn public notification from a very negative process to a positive and informed one by creating Educated Public Notifications (EPNs).
These EPNs are gatherings, usually headed by law enforcement members that inform the public by first separating myths from facts (such as the efficacy of treatment for sex offenders and actual recidivism rates). Next, Det. Shilling suggests that presentations to the public explain the intended purposes of sex offender public notification and explains what community members can do to help (such as reporting sex offenders seen visiting playgrounds, schools, and shopping mall food courts, etc.). Afterwards, the presentation should teach citizens what they can do to protect themselves and their families. Det. Shilling also points out that rejection, harassment, humiliation and vigilantism will only augment the possibility that the sex offender living in their community will reoffend and that vigilantism can lead to arrest and incarceration. Detective Shilling therefore helped to change the valence of a sex offender release from an event that was fear-invoking to a more positive valence in which people offer to help the sex offender.
Thomas (2003), a researcher from England, attended several EPNs in Minnesota. He stated these meetings, in addition to the above information, included information such as the offender was not wanted by the police, that the offender was a free man and that he could not be incarcerated forever, and that if people engaged in vigilante acts, they might lose the public notification laws for the community. He stated the department of corrections headed the meeting and disseminated information for about an hour and fielded questions for about an hour. Thomas stated common questions were about consequences regarding sex offenders not complying with conditions (reincarceration), why the sex offender was going to live in their community, and why the sex offender could not live in a halfway house forever (unavailability and laws are not set up that way). Thomas found that surprising questions were “What should we say to this man if we see him? (Why not “Hi, how’s it going?”) and “How can we help this man?” (p. 223).
Other researchers have also pointed out that an EPN can play an important role in managing sex offenders when the EPN addresses community members’ concerns and fears and is used as an opportunity to educate the public. As a result of a well run EPN, community members can try to help rather than harass their new neighbor (Zevitz & Farkas, 2000a). After attending an EPN, community members can have their fears allayed as they may feel they have some sense of control in their community and over someone who is usually described by the media as unpredictable and incorrigible (Zevitz & Farkas, 2000a).
Psychologist’s Role in EPN
Psychologists could play a key role as consultants in EPNs in their communities as psychologists understand the thinking errors community members might have toward a released sex offender in their community. For example, psychologists understand the process of awfulizing, catastrophizing, and emotional reasoning. Psychologists could be part of an EPN and help to allay community member’s fear by pointing out the thinking errors and helping people to reframe the situation from one of fear and loathing to altruistic help of others and public safety. Psychologists could also help the released offender by teaching him to not awfulize and catastrophize the situation.
EPNs in the writer’s community of Mission, BC, Canada (a city of 37,000 people) are very feasible. It seems that people anywhere are interested in how they can keep their community safe. Psychologists need to point out that if a community drives out sex offenders, they will live somewhere else. If they offend somewhere else, rather than staying in the original community and being watched and assisted so that he does not reoffend, how could people condone this behavior?
Positive outcomes of EPNs would hopefully be reduced recidivism such that sex offenders live in the community and become productive members of society. Potential unintended consequences of EPNs would be that some people are very rigid and will always believe that sex offenders are monsters looking for victims and therefore will continue to perpetrate acts of harassment and vigilantism.
Psychologists in BC follow the Canadian Code of Ethics in which the highest aspirational goal is the “respect for the dignity of persons” (College of Psychologists of British Columbia, CPBC, 2005). This aspirational goal means that a person’s moral rights are given the highest weight except when there is clear and imminent danger (CPBC). A psychologist acting as a consultant and community liaison to law enforcement for EPNs might be seen by sex offenders who are potentially in need of psychologists’ services as someone who is not acting in a way that promotes sex offender’s dignity. However, EPNs are a more respectful process than simply distributing flyers or disclosures made in newspapers and television and therefore community members may view it as a respectful process. In addition, EPNs are conducted because a sex offender is at a very high risk to reoffend and therefore there is a possibility that imminent danger exists.
In addition, psychologist’s fourth principle is “responsibility to society” (CPBC, 2005). In facilitating a process that makes a community safer, psychologists are acting in ways that are responsible to society. Therefore, it appears that possible negative results of psychologists’ involvement in EPNs are outweighed by the possible benefits.
Evaluation of EPN
To evaluate the efficacy of EPNs, recidivism rates of sex offenders who were part of an EPN versus those who were exposed to a regular public notification (in which flyers describing them and their offences were delivered door to door or through television and radio advertisements) could be compared. There are some states, such as Washington and Minnesota, that provide EPNs and other states that do not, therefore, reoffence rates could easily be compared.
Other factors that could be studied by comparing these two groups (EPNs versus regular public notification) are whether there are any differences between the two groups in terms of level of community member’s fear, number of precautionary measures taken by community members, and whether community members reported any suspicious behavior by the sex offender who was the subject of a public notification. If there are differences that are in favor of the EPN group, these data could be used to support the efficacy of EPNs.
Another avenue of research that would provide data for the efficacy of EPNs is a survey of the sex offenders who were subject to EPNs versus those that were subjected to regular public notification. The two groups could be compared regarding thoughts about recidivism, catastrophic and awfulizing thoughts that could lead to reoffence, and degree of rejection they felt as a result of the public notification. These factors could be part of a path analysis toward success (not reoffending) or recidivism. Therefore, there are many ways that the effects of public notification could be studied.
Public notification laws in the US were enacted in response to horrific crimes against two or three American children. Other countries such as the UK and Canada have taken slower and more cautious approaches. One purpose of public notification was to reduce recidivism, however, researchers were not able to show differences in recidivism rates between offenders who were subject to public notification and matched controls who did not have their personal information disclosed to the public. A second purpose was for community members to report suspicious behavior to the police so that offenders could be arrested before reoffending. However, researchers have not shown that community members typically report suspicious behaviors. One popular finding, however, is that community members usually take precautions after they have been notified that a sex offender will be living in their community. A third purpose of public notification laws was to deter sex offenders. However, sex offenders polled tended to state that it was not a deterrent for them and that public notification tended to result in them being humiliated, harassed, marginalized and outcast. Although it can be hypothesized that the extreme stress from these public notifications would increase recidivism amongst this group, there has been no empirical support for this hypothesis.
Symbolic interactionism holds that meaning, language, and thought are created collectively in societies. Distorted images of sex offenders as being incorrigible and comparable to animals have been promulgated through the media by the language that has been chosen to describe these sex offenders (i.e. “predator” vs. “offender” and “prey” versus “victim”). Although the media has traditionally served to arouse community members’ fears by the language they use, alternately, the media could be used to educate the public instead.
A concrete action that can be taken to address safe sex offender reintegration is educated public notifications (EPNs) in which myths are disputed and community members learn how to aid in protecting themselves and their community. Psychologists can play key roles as consultants to law enforcement and community members which would be feasible in Mission, BC. A possible ethical consideration would be that psychologists may not be seen by sex offenders as respecting their dignity, however, community members may view psychologists’ roles in EPNs as very helpful.
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