By Julie Marsh
Are there any sex offenders living in your neighborhood?
Of course not, you think. Not in my neighborhood.
But how do you know? Have you checked your state's registry? Do you check it regularly? Or are you expecting to be notified by law enforcement or local government in the event that a registered sex offender moves near your home, your workplace, or your children's school?
Sparked by a post at Ruthless in the Suburbs - where the author recently discovered that a convicted sex offender who served 11 years for sexual assault of a child is now living across the street from her with his elderly parents - questions are being raised about community notification procedures when sex offenders are released. Parents are checking registries and discovering offenders living where they least expected them to be - and they're wondering why they didn't know.
"Community notification reflects the perception that registration alone is inadequate to protect the public against released sex offenders and that notification provides the public with a better means of protecting itself.
Notification proponents believe that, by informing the public about the presence of a sex offender in the community, neighbors will be able to take action to protect themselves from sex offenders by keeping themselves - and their children - out of harm's way."
On the other hand, a 2000 study by the same group - which focused on Wisconsin's community notification statute - yielded mixed findings regarding community notification meetings:
"In one sense, the most significant finding of the notification meetings survey may be the inverse relationship between the factors that make notification meetings successful (i.e., providing ample amounts of helpful information) and the high anxiety levels among those in attendance. Many attendees emerged from such meetings better informed but still feeling anxious and frustrated; however, such feelings now were focused on the sex offender."
While notification meetings did accomplish the objectives outlined in the first study - providing the community with foreknowledge to be used to protect themselves and their children - this second study highlighted the detrimental effects on the offenders themselves:
"...the community notification process adversely affected their transition from prison to the outside world. Loss of employment, exclusion from residence...were frequently cited consequences of expanded notification actions.
They traced their difficulty in finding a place to live and in keeping a job to community notification and media sensationalism."
These mixed findings led to the following conclusion:
"Survey results indicate a need to educate the public about the realities of what community notification laws can and cannot be expected to accomplish.
The public has the right to be adequately informed of the risks posed by sex offenders but also must understand that the notification law does not offer recourse for residents who seek to remove a sex offender from their neighborhood."
Similar to community notification statutes in many other states, Wisconsin "use[s] a three-tier notification system based on risk assessment. Level 1 cases limit notification to law enforcement agencies in a specific area. Level 2 uses targeted notification to schools, daycare providers, and so forth, and Level 3 entails expanded notification through community meetings, news media releases, and so forth."
Currently, the best way to obtain information regarding the presences of registered sex offenders in your community is to regularly check your state registry.
However, once the Sex Offender Registration and Notification Act's (SORNA) national guidelines are implemented, another option will be available:
"The jurisdiction’s sex offender website includes a function under which members of the public and organizations can request notification when sex offenders commence residence, employment, or school attendance within zip code or geographic radius areas specified by the requester, where the requester provides an e-mail address to which the notice is to be sent.
Upon posting on the jurisdiction’s sex offender website of new residence, employment, or school attendance information for a sex offender within an area specified by the requester, the system automatically sends an e-mail notice to the requester that identifies the sex offender, thus enabling the requester to access the jurisdiction’s website and view the new information about the sex offender."
In other words, you can submit a standing query to be notified via email when a registered sex offender moves into the area surrounding your residence, place of employment, or your children's school - an area as defined by the parameters of your query.
SORNA was enacted on July 27, 2006. A "general time frame of three years for implementation" was established, with "up to two one-year extensions of this deadline."
A number of organizations, including the National Conference of State Legislatures and the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers - have raised concerns regarding SORNA's implementation. Most objections raised pertain to definition of offenses and compliance with registration requirements. The final SORNA guidelines, issued in July 2008, were intended to remedy these concerns.
But the NACDL statement in particular also addresses the issues cited in the DOJ Wisconsin study regarding the effect of community notification on the reintegration of sex offenders into society. That is, even without public meetings to identify offenders, proactive notification of individuals that a sex offender is present in the community amounts to "punitive publicity".
As parents, our desire to know as much about the people - especially the potentially dangerous ones - who come into contact with our children is paramount. But while we have resources such as state registries and SORNA to keep us informed, they aren't a panacea.
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