Community Notification About Sex Offenders
There are two issues addressed in this article. One is that we have evidence from Minnesota that community sex offender notifications work to reduce reoffending. The second is, if successful with sex offenders, why don’t we broaden community notifications to additional categories of offenders?
The evaluation of the Minnesota Community Notification Act is summarized at the bottom of the article. A source is provided.
I searched the Department of Justice’s Crime Soultions.Gov for “sex offenders” and “community notifications.” This may be the first evaluation of community notifications of sex offenders that demonstrated reductions in reoffending.
Why Just Sex Offenders?
I was the primary public affairs officer for the implementation of Megan’s Law in Maryland (I was the Director of Public Information for the Maryland Department of Public Safety). We provided a database of sex offenders to citizens. It was wildly popular with the public.
Advocates and some criminologists harshly criticized the effort as ineffective and damaging to the reentry of offenders. Now we have some indication that community notification works to reduce additional arrests.
At the time, reporters asked why the state wasn’t considering expanding the list to additional categories of offenders. After all, was someone convicted of multiple violent crimes less dangerous than a sex offender?
So if community notification works in Minnesota, why not expand it to additional categories of offending?
Reoffending By Crime
The first thing to understand about those released from state prisons is that the vast majority (77 percent) are rearrested and 55 percent are re-incarcerated.
Most offenders are not specialists; they are rearrested for a wide variety of crimes, see Recidivism-Arrests.
So the first thing we acknowledge is that the vast majority of released offenders recidivate. I have seen three-year data from states showing that as many as 85 percent of those mandatorily released (not paroled) were rearrested for another crime.
Recidivism is principally driven by criminal history and age upon release. The younger you are at release, and the more arrests and convictions you have, the greater your chances for a return to the justice system.
Note that the majority of crime (including violent crimes) are not reported to police, and two out of every five reported crimes involve an arrest, thus measures of recidivism are undercounts.
Some may object to the use of arrests as a measure of recidivism; being arrested does not mean that you will be convicted or re-incarcerated. From a United States Sentencing Commission report: To the extent that the rearrest event is an accurate indicator of relapse into criminal behavior, excluding events due to non-conviction or non-incarceration will result in underestimation of recidivism. See Federal and State Recidivism.
The overwhelming number of criminal cases in the United States use plea-bargains allowing offenders to plead to a less serious crime in return for a guilty plea, or to have other charges dropped. Thus there are people listed as property or drug or public order offenders who originally had a violent or more serious charge.
Recidivism and Arrests-There Are Differences By Crime Categories
You can see from the chart below that property offenders (82.1) are rearrested more than drug (76.9) or violent offenders (71.3), but the overall differences are rather small.
The distribution of crimes is considerable. Yes, there is a difference between violent offenders arrested for another violent crime (33.1 percent) and property offenders arrested for violent crime (28.5 percent) and all released offenders arrested for violent crime (28.6 percent) but most categories fall into the 29-30 percent range except for drug offenders (24.8 percent) rearrested for a violent crime.
From the chart, we can conclude that predicting recidivism by crime doesn’t help much as to who returns to the criminal justice system. Offenders are generalists and are arrested for a wide variety of crimes.
Expanding Categories of Community Notification
Based on recidivism as a measure of public safety, we would focus on property and drug offenders. But it’s violent offenders who do the most harm and cause the public the most concern.
About half of those released from correctional facilities go back to prison. If re-incarceration is a measure as to dangerousness, it’s close to being a flip of the coin.
We know that a minority of offenders commit the majority of crime but there are no precise measures; every research project defines multi-repeat (or career criminals) offenders differently.
For the sake of argument, we may want to look at those with ten or more arrests and at least five convictions for felonies that include violent crimes.
Age and timeframes would be considerations. If the offender is sixty-five years of age upon release, his chances of creating problems are minimal. If it’s been fifteen years since his release without new charges, and he hits an acquaintance with a beer bottle (aggravated assault), that shouldn’t set off alarm bells.
It could also be narrowed by stranger-to-stranger violent crime or crimes involving firearms.
Thus the focus would be on frequent “repeat” felons with violent histories rather than all those convicted of homicides or robberies or aggravated assaults.
We may want to notify the public of these offenders in the same way we make community notifications about the highest levels of sex offending.
It’s inevitable that we will create notifications where the offender is unlikely to re-engage in violent crime. Our ability to predict the future of any offender is challenging.
Change does happen. Even multi-repeat offenders get religion or undergo other life changes (i.e., they age out of crime) that prompt law-abiding behavior, so if we expand community notification, it has to be done cautiously and reevaluated frequently.
Also note that most prison systems already provide a list of all recently released prisoners to law enforcement or parole and probation agencies, so a form of community notification already exists.
It may be time to make notifications to the community for the most dangerous offenders. It community notification works for sex offenders, it should work for additional categories of those released from prison.
Megan’s Law in Minnesota
The evaluation of the Minnesota Community Notification Act of 1997 that targeted released sex offenders in the state was rated as “promising,” not “effective,” by the US Department of Justice’s Crime Solutions.Gov. See the link below.
The community notification group had significantly lower rearrests rates for sexual crimes (5.2 percent), compared with both the pre-notification group (58.4 percent) and the non-notification group (15.5 percent).
The notification group had significantly lower rearrest rates for nonsexual crimes (28.4 percent), compared with the pre-notification group (57.6 percent). However, the notification group rearrest rate was not significantly different from the non-notification group (34.2 percent).
There are additional measures of criminality.
Megan’s Law in Minnesota consists of three tiers of notification. Released sex offenders receive a Level I, Level II, or Level III assignment that coincides with a low, moderate, or high public-risk categorization, respectively.
For Level I offenders, notifications are sent to victims, witnesses to the crime, law enforcement agencies, and anyone else identified by the prosecutor. Level II offenders, notifications are sent to all stakeholders encompassed by Level I and local schools, daycare centers, and any other establishment where there are potential victims. For Level III offenders, notifications are sent to all stakeholders encompassed by Level I and Level II; additionally, information is released to the media, and a public meeting is held by law enforcement. This top-most tier is considered broad community notification.
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Leonard Adam Sipes, Jr. – Thirty-five years of speaking for national and state criminal justice agencies. Former Senior Specialist for Crime Prevention for the Department of Justice’s clearinghouse. Former Director of Information Services, National Crime Prevention Council. Post-Masters’ Certificate of Advanced Study-Johns Hopkins University.
(File photo Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary)