Disclosing Sex Offenders’ Residences to Improve Public Safety
In response to public outrage following the rape and murder of a seven-year-old girl named Megan Kanka by a released sex offender, New Jersey approved legislation in 1994 requiring disclosure of the places of residence of released sex offenders. Two years later, the federal Megan’s Law was enacted. It required that all states release information to the public about known convicted sex offenders. States were given considerable discretion in how information would be provided, how frequently it would be updated, and how detailed it would be. The federal law amended an earlier statute that required states to maintain registries of released sex offenders.
By 2006, all fifty states and the District of Columbia had created some form of sex offender registry and had provided for community notification of offenders’ places of residence. Notification methods varied widely from state to state, from active communication by police via door-to-door visits, mailings, and community meetings, to notice via hotlines or Web sites. The constitutionality of state laws in Connecticut and Alaska was upheld by the Supreme Court in 2003 after lower courts struck them down as violations of due process and on other grounds.
Washington State’s sex offender registration and notification system, the state system that we have analyzed for the book Full Disclosure, predates both federal statutes. The state’s 1990 Community Protection Act was based on a finding that “sex offenders pose a high risk of engaging in sex offenses even after being released from incarceration” and aimed to provide notice about the current residence of released sex offenders as a means of reducing risks to individuals and the community.
In order to provide “necessary and relevant information” to the public, the law required that any adult or juvenile convicted of any sex or kidnapping offense register with the county sheriff ’s department within twenty-four hours of release or thirty days of becoming a new state resident. Offenders were required to provide their name, address, date and place of birth, place of employment, information about the crime, a photograph, and other personal data. Those convicted of Class A felonies remained on the list throughout their lives, while those convicted of lesser crimes remained on the list for ten or fifteen years. Failure to register or provide accurate information was deemed a class C felony or gross misdemeanor, depending on the severity of the original crime. Community notification was provided through mailings, direct notification by the police, and the Internet. Washington was one of the first states to provide an Internet based system for searching and locating individuals on the registry, which includes photographs of offenders. Members of the public are given essentially unlimited access to personal information on offenders, including their conviction records. The state's web site does caution that, "It is against the law (RCW 9A.44.130) to use this information in any way to threaten, intimidate, or harass registered offenders.”
Washington’s sex offender disclosure system has become more rigorous over time. The law has been amended to allow police to disclose relevant information to public and private schools, child and family day care centers, and businesses and other organizations that primarily serve children and community groups. State officials have increased the amount of information required and tightened the timeliness of submission and requirements for updating changes in residence. As of March 31, 2006, 18,943 sex and kidnapping offenders were listed on the Washington public registry. The state does not estimate compliance rates. Parents for Megan’s Law, a national organization that monitors state-level Megan’s Laws, estimates that about one-quarter of sex offenders nationally fail to comply with state registration requirements.
This case study is drawn from Full Disclosure, Fung, Graham and Weil, 2007.