Sex offender registration and notification laws as a means of legal control

Published date21 December 2010
Date21 December 2010
AuthorDeborah Koetzle Shaffer
Deborah Koetzle Shaffer
In response to a number of highly publicized sexually-oriented and violent
crimes against children, the federal government enacted legislation aimed
at monitoring sex offenders in the community. Sex offender registration
and notification laws are intended to prevent sexual victimization by
informing the general public about would-be danger, providing the police
with additional investigative tools, and deterring offenders from engaging
in further criminal behavior. Despite public support for these laws, it is
not clear they effectively reduce sex offending. This essay reviews the
development of these laws, their application, and the impact of
registration and notification.
In early 2010, 17-year-old Chelsea King went missing while out for a run in
San Diego; her remains were found a few days later in a local park. The
Social Control: Informal, Legal and Medical
Sociology of Crime, Law and Deviance, Volume 15, 43–63
Copyright r2010 by Emerald Group Publishing Limited
All rights of reproduction in any form reserved
ISSN: 1521-6136/doi:10.1108/S1521-6136(2010)0000015005
police identified John Gardner III as the primary suspect. Shortly thereafter,
he was also linked to the disappearance and murder of 14-year-old Amber
Dubois who had been missing since the previous year. Convicted of both
crimes, he is currently serving a life sentence without the possibility of
parole. Previously convicted of the molestation of a 13-year old, Gardner
was a registered sex offender at the time of his arrest. These events, and
others like them, call into question the efficacy of sex offender registration
and notification laws as a means for providing legal control of known sex
Efforts to legally control sex offenders can be traced back to the early
1900s (see Lieb, Quinsey, & Berliner, 1998). Building on early attempts
to manage this population, today’s laws are aimed at civil commit-
ment following release from prison, sex offender registration, residency
restrictions, and community notification. Although early laws were intended
to target sexually violent offenders who had extrafamilial victims, today’s
laws largely fail to make such a distinction and govern the broader class of
sex offenders. As a result, the majority of sex offenders in the United States
are subjected to some form of additional legal control beyond incarceration
or community supervision.
The most common of these initiatives are the sex offender registry and
notification (SORN) laws. Estimates suggest that over 700,000 sex offenders
are subject to registration in the United States (National Center for Missing
and Exploited Children [NCMEC], 2010). These laws generally require sex
offenders to register their home address and place of employment with the
state or local authorities. The registries are then used as the source of
notification to the public. Offenders are classified along a tier system with
higher level offenders subjected to broader notification. For example, while
Tier 1 offenders are required to register, they are rarely subjected to
public notification. Instead, their information is made available to criminal
justice agencies including local law enforcement and the courts. In contrast,
higher risk offenders (Tier 2 and Tier 3) are often the subject of public
notification. Notification can take a number of forms including both passive
and active notification. Passive notification requires residents to actively
seek information by contacting the police or searching the registry, whereas
active notification is the release of information through flyers or mailings
to notify the public about the presence of a sex offender in the community.
While each state has some version of SORN, there is a great deal of
variation across states in terms of the classification and notification
processes (Cohen & Jeglic, 2007). Recent legislation has mandated that
all states come into compliance with federal guidelines regarding SORN or

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