Sex Offender Notification Laws: Should They Provide Treatment Incentives for Sex Offenders?

By Campbell, Margaret | Developments in Mental Health Law, June 2001 | Go to article overview

Sex Offender Notification Laws: Should They Provide Treatment Incentives for Sex Offenders?


Campbell, Margaret, Developments in Mental Health Law


In the United States, legislative efforts to protect the public from sex offenders began in 1937 with Michigan's sexual psychopath law. Early laws reflected the belief that sex offenders could be treated to reduce their risk of recidivism. (1) Since then, legislatures have implemented a number of different types of laws in an attempt to protect the public from this type of offender. One of the more recent developments is the advent of community notification statutes. This legislative movement began in 1990 when Washington State passed its Community Protection Act, which permitted law enforcement to disseminate information about convicted sex offenders in the community. (2) Since then, notification statutes have proliferated. Although their explicit purpose is public protection, there remains an implicit belief that sex offenders can be treated and should be encouraged to participate in treatment. Community notification laws, however, are almost exclusively designed to protect the public and do little to encourage sex offenders to participate in treatment.

NOTIFICATION LAWS

Heinous sex crimes have traditionally, and understandably, given rise to public outrage. Sex crimes against children often provoke an even greater emotional response. In 1989, 11-year-old Jacob Wetterling was abducted only a half mile from his home in St. Joseph, Minnesota. He and his kidnapper were never found. (3) Jacob's parents used his kidnapping as an opportunity to inform the public about the problem of child abductions. (4) Their efforts led to the Jacob Wetterling Crimes Against Children and Sexually Violent Offender Registration Act, which Congress enacted in 1994. (5) The Act mandated that all states enact sex offender registration legislation by October 1996 or lose 10% of their federal crime control funds. (6) Under the Act, release of information about sex offenders was limited to law enforcement agencies, government agencies conducting confidential background investigations, and the public if "necessary to protect the public concerning a specific person required to register." (7) The Act provided no further guidelines for release of information. It was within a state's discretion to release information about the sex offender and to decide to whom this information should be provided. (8) As of 1996, all 50 states had enacted some sort of registration scheme. (9)

In 1994, the sexual assault and murder of Megan Kanka, a seven-year-old New Jersey girl, was also widely publicized. Megan's attacker was a convicted sex offender who, unbeknownst to Megan's parents, lived across the street. (10) Megan Kanka's parents went public with their ordeal, arguing that had they known that their neighbor was a convicted sex offender, they would have taken steps to protect their daughter. Tackling this issue, Congress amended the Jacob Wetterling Act in 1996. This amendment became known as "Megan's Law." (11)

Megan's Law mandated that all states pass legislation requiring a state or local law enforcement agency to "release relevant information that is necessary to protect the public concerning a specific person required to register." (12) Megan's Law contained the same deadline and consequences for a state's failure to pass legislation as the original Jacob Wetterling Act. (13) Megan's Law requires notification, eliminating much, but not all of the discretion involved in the notification decision. As of 1998, all 50 states had enacted some form of community notification law for released sex offenders. (14)

Statutory Schemes

State sex offender registration statutes mandate that a released sex offender supply his or her name, address, and other information such as work location, to some authority, usually local law enforcement. The offender must also keep this information current or face possible criminal charges. (15) Notification statutes, on the other hand, provide for public disclosure about a sex offender's presence in the community (16) The information provided to the community may be more limited than that provided to law enforcement, (17) and notification statutes themselves vary from state to state. …

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