Sex offender registries are official lists of offenders convicted of certain sex crimes, and community notification laws make these lists public. Because sexual violence is one of the most pervasive violent crimes affecting the lives of women and children, the need to control sex offenders is a top priority. The practice of mandating sex offender registration has deep legislative roots (1947), but community notification laws were not realized until 1990 when Washington state passed the first community notification law in response to a brutal sexual attack of a young Tacoma boy by an exconvict with a lengthy history of sex crimes. In 1994, the highly publicized sexual assault and murder of 7-year-old Megan Kanka, by a paroled sex offender living in her New Jersey neighborhood, brought national attention to the issue of child sexual predators. The state quickly passed Megan’s Law, a sex offender registration and community notification act, which become the blueprint for other state versions of the law and the federal government’s national sex offender registration and community notification legislation. Sociolegal scholars note that sex offender registration and community notification laws, much like the sexual psychopath laws of earlier decades, resulted from widespread panic surrounding stranger related victimizations against children.
All 50 states now have some form of Megan’s Law, but state-to-state variations exist with respect to how quickly offenders must register, how many years offenders are required to stay on the registry, the type of offenders subjected to registration and community notification, and the degree, forum, and process of community notification. For example, some states reserve registration and community notification for only high-risk offenders, while other states mandate registration and community notification for every convicted sex offender in the jurisdiction. The process of notifying the community also differs from state to state. Some states require proactive notification and make it the responsibility of law enforcement to inform organizations, private citizens, and even the media when a high-risk sex offender is released. In contrast, other states have reactive community notification practices, disclosing the information only when citizens specifically ask for it.
It is unclear whether sex offender registration and community notification laws increase public safety, as there are many reasons to doubt these laws can fulfill the high expectations set out for them. For instance, registries are not comprehensive lists of sex offenders. Many, if not most, offenders are excluded because the sex crime is never reported. Other probable limitations to these laws’ effectiveness include plea bargaining that negotiates away the requirement to register, offenders failing to comply with the legal requirements, states lacking adequate monitoring and oversight of the registries, and perhaps most importantly, the laws’ focus on the rarest forms of sexual violence—victimizations by strangers. Sexual assaults usually occur between persons who already know one another. Children, especially those under the age of 6, are rarely sexually victimized by strangers.
Researchers and policymakers need more empirical data on the intended and unintended outcomes associated with these laws.
- Avrahamian, K. (1998). A critical perspective: Do “Megan’s Laws” really shield children from sex predators? Journal of Juvenile Law, 19, 1–18.
- Edwards, W., & Hensley, C. (2001). Contextualizing sex offender management legislation and policy: Evaluating the problem of latent consequences in community notification laws. International Journal of Offender Therapy and Comparative Criminology, 45(1), 83–101.
- Welchans, S. (2005). Megan’s Law: Evaluations of sexual offender registries. Criminal Justice Policy Review, 16, 123–140.
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