Vigilance or ignorance?

The idea we should all be told when a sex offender moves into our
street has been around for some time. The argument is that the sex
offenders’ register, held by the police, should be open for public
inspection so that we can all better protect ourselves and our

Since the sex offenders’ register came into being in 1997 the
government has steadfastly refused to countenance such open access,
fearing a horde of vigilantes could drive offenders “underground”.
At last year’s Labour Party conference in Blackpool, home secretary
David Blunkett re-affirmed this position: “We cannot open the sex
offenders’ register to the vigilantes who do not understand the
difference between paediatricians and paedophiles.”

Blunkett was referring to an incident where a vigilante confused
the two and attacked the home of a paediatrician.

The US has had no such fears and “community notification” has been
official policy since 1996 when federal law mandated all 50 states
to give public access to their sex offender registers. In the US it
was called Megan’s Law after seven-year-old Megan Kanka of New
Jersey, who was abducted and killed by a known offender who lived
in the same street.

Each of the states had the discretion to decide exactly how
notification would work. Some put names in the newspaper, some put
names and photographs on the internet. Police flyers could appear
through neighbourhood letter boxes.

In some states notification is only made on those offenders
considered a risk. Sometimes the courts decide who this might be,
and sometimes it is left to agencies like the local Department of

One method of notifying the community is to convene a neighbourhood
meeting for the police or other agencies to inform local residents
of the new arrival in their midst. A local school or community hall
is taken over for the evening and invitations posted out to a given
catchment area. Such community notification meetings are now
established practice in many states.

In Minnesota, for example, Will Alexander of the Department of
Corrections has convened more than 200 of these meetings. Here,
they call them “community notification and education” meetings
because they believe they can do more than just notify a

Minnesota categorises all sex offenders due for release from prison
into low risk, medium risk or high risk – level one, two or three
respectively. Only the high risk level three offenders are subject
to a community notification meeting. Offenders who had received a
non-custodial sentence were automatically assessed as level

The categorisation is made about three months before a given
release date by a meeting in the prison, known as the end of
confinement review committee. The committee is made up of
Department of Corrections officials, prison officials, a police
representative and a victims’ association representative.

Most offenders are categorised as level one. Any prisoner who looks
likely to be a level two or three is entitled to have a lawyer with
them when they appear before the end of confinement review

The presence of the lawyer recognises that a level three
designation and a community notification meeting is likely to have
repercussions for the offender and therefore a degree of “due
process” is necessary in making the decision.

Community notification meetings in Minnesota attended by the author
brought in an average of 100-200 local residents. The meetings
started at 7pm and lasted at least two hours. The first hour was
entirely about general matters of sex offending and the local law
and policy. Only after this was reference made to the specific
individual moving into the neighbourhood and photographs displayed
and flyers distributed.

After these identifying details have been given the meeting is
thrown open for questions, which are fielded by a team of “experts”
representing probation, the Department of Corrections, the police,
the district attorney’s office and sometimes members of victims’

During the opening hour of general debate the audience has been
warned against vigilantism and harassment, and of how they will
lose this law and this right to know if they abuse it. When the
meeting is thrown open for questions any overt hostility is more
latent than manifest, although the questions could still be quite

“Why is this man coming here?”, “What should we do to protect
ourselves?”, “Why is he being released?” An occasional voice might
be heard asking “How can we help this man?”

Alexander explains the law and how the individual is free to live
where he wants once he has left prison. Minnesota’s policy of only
notifying communities of high risk level three offenders means only
a small proportion of their 11,000 registered sex offenders are
subject to community notification meetings.

When asked the question “Why can’t this man go into a half-way
house, where he can be supervised?”, Alexander deftly turns the
question back to ask where such a facility could be opened in this
neighbourhood because that is exactly what the authorities
themselves would like if only such a resource existed here. The
question soon goes away.

Rural communities often had a different take on proceedings from
urban ones. The rural community was more likely to know the person
concerned so questions could be that much more personal.

In the rare event of an offender leaving prison for a more affluent
neighbourhood the meeting could be overflowing. So many turned up
at one meeting in a desirable area of Minneapolis that the evening
had to be split into two consecutive meetings.

Legal challenges to community notification have gone all the way to
the US Supreme Court. Arguments that it is an invasion of an
offender’s privacy, and an exercise that lacks any legal “due
process” have been lost. So too has the argument that community
notification is a secondary form of punishment disguised as a
community safety measure.1

Are communities made any safer by community notification meetings?
The evidence is not convincing. Research in Wisconsin, the state
next to Minnesota, found people going away from notification
meetings more confused and anxious than when they had
arrived.2 The research also revealed that extra work
fell on the probation service and police in organising the meetings
and there were extra difficulties in housing sex offenders when a
community notification meeting was imminent.

Research carried out by the NSPCC finds “there is very little
evidence to substantiate claims that community notification
enhances child safety”.3

In May this year, the mother of eight-year-old Sarah Payne (who was
abducted and murdered in July 2000), spoke at the Police Federation
annual conference in Blackpool arguing for open access to the UK
register. If the Home Office does ever change its mind on access,
it would need to consider the logistics of notification and such
mechanisms as the community notification meeting.

Terry Thomas is reader in social work at Leeds Metropolitan
University. He recently completed a six-month fellowship at the
University of Minnesota funded by the UK’s Leverhulme


1 “Justices reject challenges to Megan’s law”, New York
Times, 6 March 2003

2 National Institute of Justice, Sex Offender Community
Notification: Assessing the Impact in Wisconsin, US Department of
Justice, 2000

3 Lovell E, Megan’s Law: Does it Protect Children?,
NSPCC, 2001

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