Revisiting Sex Offender Registration and Notification: Does Awareness Differ Across Community Type?

AuthorEthan M. Higgins,Kristin Swartz,John C. Navarro
Published date01 March 2022
Date01 March 2022
DOIhttp://doi.org/10.1177/0734016820971033
Subject MatterArticles
Article
Revisiting Sex Offender
Registration and Notification:
Does Awareness Differ
Across Community Type?
John C. Navarro
1
, Ethan M. Higgins
2
, and Kristin Swartz
3
Abstract
In recent decades, sex offender registry and notification has become ubiquitous across the United
States. Although researchers have attempted to evaluate the awareness of registered sex offenders,
much of this work has had a nearly unilateral focus on urban communities. In response, researchers
have called for further investigation into whether awareness manifests differently across community
type (suburban and urban). To address this question, we draw from two data sets. The first data set
contains property data for single-family households sold in 2015 from a suburban county in
Illinois and an urban county in Kentucky. The second data set consists of survey responses from
113 suburban and 171 urban county residents within 1,000 feet of the nearest sex offender that was
delivered via a sequential mixed-mode design. In addition, we investigate whether awareness
manifests differently across community type through a number of predictors (e.g., children in the
household, education) and potential theoretical explanations (fear of crime, informal social control,
and social cohesion). We find that community types do have differing levels of awareness and that
varying levels of social cohesion may explain this difference. Implications are also discussed.
Keywords
sex offenders, sex offender registry, community notification, housing, GIS
Over the past few decades, scholars have devoted a considerable amount of empirical attention to
understanding public attitudes toward registered sex offenders (RSOs) reentering their communities
(see, generally, Rade et al., 2016). In turn, a growing literature has begun to investigate the effects of
sex offender registries and notification (SORN) systems in communities (Evans et al., 2015). The
Jacob Wetterling Act of 1994 formalized state-based registries of persons convicted of sex crimes
1
Department of Criminal Justice and Criminology, Sam Houston State University, Huntsville, TX, USA
2
Department of Sociology and Criminology, University of North Carolina Wilmington, NC, USA
3
Department of Criminal Justice, University of Louisville, KY, USA
Corresponding Author:
John C. Navarro, Department of Criminal Justice and Criminology, Sam Houston State University, P.O. Box 2296,Huntsville,
TX 77341, USA.
Email: jxn044@shsu.edu
Criminal Justice Review
ª2020 Georgia State University
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DOI: 10.1177/0734016820971033
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2022, Vol. 47(1) 34–52
with their personally identifying information. Additionally, Megan’s Law of 1996 employed various
methods of public notification that distributes information of RSOs and unified them with registries.
These laws together formulate SORN, which provides public awareness on the whereabouts of local
RSOs ranging from 25.6%to 46%according to survey research (Beck & Travis, 2006; Burchfield,
2012; Craun, 2010; Kernsmith et al., 2009; Phillips, 1998; Zevitz, 2003). Existing research indicates
the most informed groups tend to be wo men and parents (Anderson et al., 2 009; Anderson &
Sample, 2008; Boyle et al., 2014; Harris & Cudmore, 2018; Kernsmith et al., 2009), persons with
greater educational attainment (Anderson et al., 2009; Anderson & Sample, 2008; Boyle et al.,
2014), residents with a greater number of nearby RSOs (Craun, 2010), and urban residents
(Anderson et al., 2009; Anderson & Sample, 2008).
Empirical work on notification systems has largely focused on urban communities and residents
(Agan& Prescott, 2014; Andersonet al., 2009; Anderson& Sample, 2008; Bandy,2011; Beck & Travis,
2006; Craun,2010; Kernsmith et al., 2009;Levenson, Brannon, et al., 2007;Zevitz, 2003). One reason
this might be is thaturban residents have a greater likelihoodof being in contact with people in general,
which increases the possible risk of victimization and, in turn, may galvanize a greater desire for
information about local RSOs (Anderson et al., 2009; Brownet al., 2008). Despite this focus on urban
communities, existing legal provisions greatly diminish available residencesfor RSOs in urban areas,
which effectively pushes them outward toward less dense communities(Chajewski & Mercado, 2009;
Socia, 2011;for an exception, seeBerenson & Appelbaum, 2011).For instance, nonurbancommunities
likely differculturally from urban residentswho may rely on neighborsor believe the presence of RSOs
is unlikely,thus, leaving theformal structure of notification via registryas a nonessentialtool (Anderson
et al., 2009; Burchfield, 2012; Craun, 2010). Findings, to date, suggest public interactions with the
registry may differentiate across community type (suburban andurban).
Despite a growing body of research on community awareness of local RSOs, these studies are
limited to metropolitan areas (Bandy, 2011; Beck & Travis, 2006; Craun, 2010; Kernsmith et al.,
2009; Zevitz, 2003) or do not compare awareness across community types (Burchfield, 2012; see
Phillips, 1998). For this reason, scholars have advocated for further investigation into how different
communities react to publicly accessible information on RSOs due to SORN (Anderson et al., 2009;
Burchfield, 2012; Craun, 2010). To address this gap in the literature, this study uses recently
relocated homeowners as a population to explore the awareness of RSOs across community type.
Our research questions are based upon a multicounty and multistate sample of homebuyers who
reside within 1,000 feet of the nearest RSO. Our first research question is to assess whether the
awareness of local RSOs differs between residents of suburban and urban communities. Recent
homeowners are an ideal population to gauge the efficacy of notification as they have recently
located to the area and are more likely to access the registry than renters and long-term residents
(Kernsmith et al., 2009). If awareness manifests differently across community type, there may be
predictors and theoretical constructs that help explain this variance. Thus, we investigate two other
research questions. Our second research question investigates demographic and residential predic-
tors. Our third research question investigates potential theoretical explanations.
Legal Responses to Sex Offenders
Public concern over sexual recidivism has been paralleled by a considerable growth of legislation
that has sought to establish control over sex offenders (Hobbs & Trott er, 2018; Simon, 1998).
Despite recent research that demonstrates sex offender recidivism is lower than commonly believed
(Alper & Durose, 2019; Letourneau et al., 2010), preventative controls are far-ranging, commonly
including castration laws, sex offender driver license notation requirements, lifetime supervision,
civil commitment, residency restrictions, community notification, and sex offender registries
(Mancini et al., 2011). These policies are not without controversy. They are often argued by scholars
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Navarro et al.

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