Politics and Irrelevance:
Community Notification Statutes
by Eric Lotke
As appeared in the Federal Sentencing Reporter,
September/October 1997 - Volume 10, No. 2
On July 29, 1994, seven year old Megan Kanka accepted the invitation of a
convicted sex offender to enter his home to play with his puppy. When the man
was charged with raping and strangling little Megan, members of her New Jersey
neighborhood seized on a common sense solution: people should be told if a sex
offender lives in the area.
In a single week, 100,000 New Jersey residents signed petitions in support of
such a law. The state assembly declared a "legislative emergency" and
rushed a bill through without hearings. On October 31, 1994, just three months
after Megan's death, the governor made national headlines by signing the
community notification act that came to be known as Megan's Law. Hardly pausing
to see if such legislation reduces victimization rates, 41 additional states and
the federal government have enacted community notification statutes since
While these statutes are clear political winners, their effect on
neighborhoods is less certain. Notification efforts can lead to cumbersome
administrative problems, debate over issues irrelevant to public safety, and the
reduction of interventions more likely to protect the community. Notification
also increases the de facto sentence by adding a negative collateral consequence
to the conviction. This article discusses the factual underpinnings of sex
offender notification and some frequently overlooked complexities.
I. Myths and Realities
The purpose of community notification statutes is to alert the public to the
presence of sex offenders who have been released into the community. In theory,
people will use the information to avoid the threat presented by sex offenders
in their midst; parents, in particular, will be able to warn their children whom
to avoid. While this theory has intuitive appeal, it rests on factual
assumptions that turn out to be substantially unfounded.
A. The myth of high reoffense rates.
The belief that sex offenders repeatedly reoffend fuels the rush toward
community notification. "Statistics show that 95% of the time, anyone who
molests a child will likely do it again," declared the Indiana senator
proposing sex offender registration in that state. 
A Florida senator referred to "sexual predators who start to look for their
next victim as soon as they are released from prison," [2
]and a California legislator warned the public that sex offenders "will
immediately commit this crime again at least 90 percent of the time." 
Scholarly research does not support these claims. Elizabeth [?Margaret?] Alexander's
comprehensive meta-analysis of 7,753 sex offenders [cfr.
Alexander 1999] found reoffense rates of
10.9% among treated sex offenders and 18.5% among untreated offenders. 
Lita Furby, whose work prompted the popular belief that "nothing
works" to reduce sex offender recidivism, found overall reoffense rates of
12.7% among the 15,361 people she researched. 
Most recently, a national report commissioned by the Office of Canada's
Solicitor General found overall reoffense rates of 13.4%. 
Thus, it appears that only a minority of identified sex offenders reoffend. Over
80% never offend again, almost the opposite of what many politicians claim, and
substantially lower than for many other types of crime. 
One source of confusion about reoffense rates is the failure to distinguish
between identified and unidentified offenders. Prior to getting caught, people
are more likely to engage in repeat victimizations. Offenders may have sexual
relations with one or several victims on a regular basis for lengthy periods of
time, and it can add up to dozens or hundreds of separate contacts. But
everything changes after getting caught. In the words of one ex-offender:
[W]ith arrest and the other shocking consequences of being discovered, those
uncertain boundaries [stemming from one's own prior victimization] are suddenly
and vividly redrawn. For most, that drawing emerges with very hard lines. More
than with any other class of offender, getting caught leaves sex offenders
humiliated, shamed and shaken to the core. Being handcuffed and hauled away from
decent society is a shattering experience for anyone, but it is all the more
electrifying and soul-stripping when the nature of the offense is as intimate
and shameful secret as is a sex crime. 
People's own internal shock is the primary reason reoffense rates are
relatively low even among untreated sex offenders. Unlike alcoholics, wife
beaters or drug users who can create excuses for their behavior - I can control
my drinking, she deserved to be disciplined, whatever - there is no excuse for
fondling one's stepdaughter. People know they have done something shockingly
wrong, and that realization drives them to stop. Punishment might be explicable
on the basis of retribution, but not so much on the basis of likelihood of
reoffense. And of course for those sex offenders who have not yet been
identified, there is by definition nothing anyone can do.
Another technical matter that can inflate reoffense rates is failure to focus
on recidivism for subsequent sex offenses. The prospect of repeat sexual
offending is more troubling than the prospect of more mundane subsequent
lawbreaking. People who commit sex crimes may someday shoplift, use drugs or get
in a bar fight - likely at rates similar to the general population. Sex offense
research tends to focus on the reoffense rate for additional sex crimes, but
including subsequent crimes of a more general nature can substantially inflate
recidivism rates. 
Another common source of inflation is the loss of an "up to" in the
chain of reporting. Large studies of sex offenses generally find substantial
ranges of reoffense rates - because different offenses and different types of
offenders followed for different periods will generate different results.
Researchers typically calculate overall rates as well as rates of specific
categories, and report their findings with language such as "as low as
3%" or "up to 40%." Politicians and the press sometimes cite such
research but they ignore the low figure and drop the "up to" from the
high figure. By the time the research makes it to the public, it substantially
overstates actual reoffense rates.
Reoffense rates are thus lower than widely believed. The unstoppable sex
predator is primarily a creation of media and politicians highlighting the
dramatic and pandering to prurient interests. While the unfortunate possibility
that 15 out of 100 people might reoffend needs to be taken seriously, the scale
of the misunderstanding and the speed with which it led to legislative action
may be more significant than the statutes that happen to be enacted.
B. The myth that nothing works.
In her nationally syndicated advice column, Ann Landers reports that "the
only molesters who can be considered permanently cured are those who have been
surgically castrated. A drastic measure? Yes. But it's the only one that is
guaranteed to work." 
The idea that nothing works can be substantially tracked to a 1989 study by
Lita Furby.  Furby
studied treatment outcomes in the mid 1980's and found evidence that treatment
reduced recidivism to be inconclusive. Recidivism rates hovered around 13% for
both treated and untreated offenders. A more recent study by the U.S. General
Accounting Office reached a similar position. 
Methodological problems and difficulty of matching comparison groups indicated
that "more work was needed before firm conclusions could be reached." 
As a matter of logic, a conclusion of inconclusiveness is different from a
conclusion that nothing works. As a matter of subjective experience, many
researchers - even those who admit their research is not yet conclusive - are
optimistic. A Vermont study of child molesters given sophisticated treatment
found 4.6% recidivism after 3 years compared to 8.2% in the control group.
Gordon Hall found reoffense rates declining from 27% to 19%, and Margaret
Alexander found rates dropping from 18.5% to 10.9%. Robert Freeman-Longo of the
Safer Society acknowledges the methodological problems but has decided that the
latest research into state-of-the-art therapies resolves all doubts, and he
declares "Treatment works!" - with the exclamation point. 
C. The myth that sex offenders are fundamentally different.
If average people are asked to describe a sex offender, they will probably paint
a picture of a drooling, violent predator, either retarded or scheming, who
rapes and kills for sexual pleasure. Nothing could be further from the truth.
First, sex offenses cover a wide range of behavior. Often they involve
non-violent activity such as possession of child pornography or soliciting for
prostitution, so there is no victim in the traditional sense. The most troubling
sex crimes involve physical contact, usually with family members or friends,
often children, who are manipulated or intimidated into silence. Most of these
crimes involve fondling or undressing, though they occasionally rise to sex acts
Second, sex offenders tend to be ordinary in most respects. They hold jobs,
have a place in a family, play sports and maintain friendships. The feature that
distinguishes them is that many, if not most, were victims of abuse in the past.
This fact does not excuse their misconduct, but it helps to explain it.
Addressing the psychological harm done to offenders in the past may help to
reduce the harm they inflict on others in the future, thus preempting
intergenerational cycles of abuse.
Behind the enactment of Megan's law lies the unspoken assumption that if only
Megan's parents knew who lived in that house, Megan might be alive today. Of
course we can never test the hypothesis for Megan, but local whispers raise
doubts. Neighbors apparently knew that repeat rapist Joseph Cifelli lived in
that house, and that he met his two roommates while serving time in a state
prison for sex offenders. 
It has even been reported that Megan's parents warned her to stay away, 
but none of this prevented an inquisitive child from crossing the street to see
The inability of Megan's family to prevent the tragedy is cause for sympathy,
not criticism. It's not clear what action the parents could have taken that
would have saved their daughter. Indeed, the difficulty of contingent action is
one of the complexities behind community notification that goes largely
unexplored. This section is devoted to exploring some frequently overlooked
Impact on Victim and Other Family Members.
Sex crimes typically occur
among family and friends; 90% of rape victims under 12 years old knew their
attacker.  In such
cases, notifying the public of the offender's identify can also identify the
victim. In cases of incest, for example, it is difficult to name the offender
without also naming the victim. Moreover, the community that most needs to know
of the incident - the family - almost certainly already knows. They don't need
the sheriff to go door to door handing out their address. What impact will
community notification have on an offender's wife? How should we help his
children cope with the taunts in school? For how many years should the family
suffer those consequences? Proponents of community notification need to consider
the impact on nonoffending citizens.
Distracting, Irrelevant Arguments:
Nowadays the question is not
whether to notify the public but how. Should notification be by 800 number,
which costs the state money, or by 900 number, which generates revenue? Should
names be available on CD ROM or transmitted over the internet? Within how many
days of moving must an offender notify authorities? Should notification be
managed at the state or county level? By what agency? States are investing
considerable energy addressing these problems - and none of that energy is going
into treatment for either offenders or victims. The prevalence of these issues
on talk radio demonstrates the political popularity of notification, but it
distracts from discussion more likely to advance public safety. Citizens
convinced that notification will make them safe might not demand to expand
treatment opportunities that would make them safer yet.
Offenders Can't Normalize.
A person who has once committed a sex crime
needs more than anything else to learn to function normally in the community.
The best path to safety is to help offenders cope with their various problems -
trauma from past victimization, lack of trust, feelings of rejection or
isolation, poor anger management or communications and social skills. Ostracism
following public notification may exacerbate these problems and increase the
risk of reoffense. Rejection by the community may lead people to despair of ever
living a normal life, and such hopelessness can undermine attempts to conform to
community standards, driving people inwards, where they may dwell on
increasingly inappropriate fantasies.
Offenders Run Elsewhere.
Organized community hostility to sex
offenders in a neighborhood can compel offenders to move to less organized
communities - where the person may be more likely to reoffend unnoticed. Even if
the person stays in a community organized against him, he may easily travel a
short distance to a place he is not known. The most notification can hope to
achieve is increased safety in a small radius; the sphere of notification cannot
possibly extend as far as a person can easily move in a motorized society.
California's publicly available CD-ROM of sex offenders
contains 64,000 names, including convictions for consensual sex among underage
youth or gay men in the 1950's. 
While the public thinks registration is for serious repeat violent offenders
-"predators," is the usual term - the reality is more mundane.
Overbroad registries provide at least two types of disservice: (1) they unfairly
stigmatize the non-dangerous people branded by notification, and (2) they
prevent the public from identifying the small number of truly risky individuals
buried among thousands of other names. The national database managed by the
federal government is designed for at least 250,000 names - though it was
motivated by just a handful of high profile incidents. 
States that attempt to assess the risk of individual offenders can moderate
problems of overbreadth, but broad statutory definitions of risk and the
tendency of bureaucracies to protect themselves by classifying people as higher
rather than lower risks still leaves too many low risk people subject to
notification. Furthermore, it is essential to ensure accuracy in reporting.
Arrests without convictions or very old convictions need to be reassessed by
those maintaing registries and specifying notification, just as sentencing
judges may discount older convictions at sentencing.
Fears of widespread vigilante attacks on registered
offenders have not materialized, but there are enough individual stories to
cause alarm. The home of one sex offender was burned down in Oregon, and
another's dog was beheaded and the head set on his doorstep. In New Jersey, home
intruders beat an innocent man they mistook for a sex offender. Door to door
leafleting and red signs posted outside homes - in the absence of serious
community education and mediation - invite such abuse.
Decrease in Reporting.
Reports from New Jersey and Colorado indicate
decreased reporting of sex offenses against juveniles, including incest by
family members, by people who do not wish to subject the family to community
Careful attention must be paid to the disincentive notification places on
victims to step forward, so both they and the offender can be dealt with.
Extension to Other Crimes.
Is a sex crime more serious than a murder?
Should the neighborhood be told if a murderer moves in? A former drug addict?
Maybe police should tell the town that a man beats his wife - to subject him to
the social stigma of his offense. . . . It is difficult to draw lines in
notification. While criminal records tend to be public, going the next step to
notification takes an affirmative act. Broad based notification for large
classifications of sex offenses moves our society in the direction of still
broader classifications of prior misdeeds being aired in public.
Treatment is more effective when offenders
are required to take full responsibility for their actions. They must change
their thought processes and notify people in their support system - ranging from
family and friends to employer and probation officer - about their mental
states. Comprehensive treatment and community reintegration are superior means
of increasing personal responsibility and internal control, while notification
is an external means of surveillance. Notification shifts responsibility to the
community, which can undermine offenders' personal sense of responsibility and
leave the impression they can do whatever they can get away with.
False Security, False Fear.
Community notification can leave
neighborhoods with two simultaneous and paradoxically competing perceptions: a
false sense of security and an artificial spread of terror. Passing a
notification statute may soothe fears and make people feel the state is rooting
out offenders in their midst, leaving a neighborhood relaxed when offenders from
elsewhere drop by in search of victims. On the other hand, the sensational news
coverage and fear-inspiring political speeches associated with passing a
notification act can artificially inflate fears and make people feel monsters
live among them. Neither of these feelings is particularly true. Strangers who
commit repeat violent sex offenders are thankfully rare. Whatever good
notification might do may be undone by statutory overbreadth and displacement of
Legislation passed in the emotional aftermath of horrifying crimes is not the
best path to a safe society. The time and money presently directed toward
maintaining offender databases and designing notification schemes should be
redirected to create and expand high quality treatment regimes. Treatment should
be part of the sentence for people convicted of sex crimes, and available for
those who identify themselves independent of the legal process. Trained
counselors can detect emotional backsliding before it leads to completed
actions, and they can intervene more effectively than barely informed neighbors.
Long term therapy and strategies designed to normalize and reintegrate the lives
of offenders in the community are the most promising path to neighborhood