The phenomenon of sexual violence is considered to be one of the main health problems in the United States. With the present day shift in social consciousness and criminological analyses, the new approaches have been implemented in an effort of crime-reducing and preventing.
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Requiring registration, public notification and following GPS monitoring of the ex-criminals, Megan’s law and Adam Marshal act aimed at decreasing recidivism of sexual offenders appeared to be ineffective due to imperfections of the system and various collateral consequences.
The main hindrances reducing the effectiveness of the method significantly are inaccuracy of the state registries’ databases and certain level of naivety of the laws, focused on punishment of the previous crimes instead of preventing the new ones. Being aimed at making the citizens feel safe, these legislative laws, on the contrary, restrain the atmosphere resulting in panic and hysteria in the community and increasing aggression of the ex-offenders deprived of opportunities to reintegrate with the society.
General characteristic of registration and public notification acts
The early laws aimed at protecting citizens from repeated sexual offenders have been known since 1930s. The advent of innovative technologies and shifts in the public consciousness allowed creating a national Internet registry for the purpose of community notification making these acts more effective.
Levi (2008) pointed at “The ‘death of the social’ and the ‘turn to community ’ have become common refrains in criminological analyses” (p. 583). The main advantages of contemporary Megan’s Law (1996) and Adam Walsh Act (2006) is their nationwide character and the requirement of regular updating of information by the offenders.
The main goal of these legislative acts is making the community safer by means of providing the police and society with information required for watching their activities and making certain self-protective steps and preventing recidivism by means of enhancing the registrants’ consciousness that everyone watches them.
With the entry of Megan’s Law and Adam Walsh Child Protection Act state that much focus has shifted on post offenders than those who are not yet convicted. This poses a threat in the sense that potential victims will shy away from those who have been branded real culprits. Instead, they will tend to associate with those who have not been convicted of the offence.
Megan’s Law focuses on neighborhood being notified of a sexual offender living within their proximity (O’Brien, 1996). The Megan’s Law was passed as legislation on July 29, 1994 by the US congress after the rape and murder case of Megan Kanka (Levenson et al., 2007; O’Brien, 1996). A neighbor who lived across their street was convicted of committing the offence.
Although, there was justification for the installation of the legal criteria imposed then through the Sex Offender Registration and Notification Law, the threat now would be focusing too much on already committed offence than looking at the causal factors from a societal holistic view (Solove, 2003).
This is not to discredit the legislations but to criticize the public mindset of relying on it as panacea to ridding of crimes of the same nature. The perception may incline to repeat offenders than beginners or disguised characters. Actually, it was later noted that even some of the neighbors in the scene of the murder of Megan’s Kanka knew about the history of the suspect Joseph Cifelli (O’Brien, 1996). He was repeat offender but unaware to the parents of the victim (O’Brien, 1996).
Prior to passing the Megan’s Law, states like Washington D.C. had already enacted the Community Protection Act. The legislation requires an offender to register with the local enforcement agency center soon after release from detention or supervised care (Caldwell, 2007).
The Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act of 2006 came into the public domain on 2005 as the Children’s Safety and Violent Crime Reduction Act. Later, in March 2006 the senate passed it and was renamed as the Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act of 2006 (Denning & Reynolds, 2009).
This act is tailored towards protecting children from sexual molesting as well as violent crimes, curb children abuse and their indulgence into pornography and to improve the internet content safety. Adam Walsh Act provides for national minimum benchmark for the different States to register sex offenders.
It comes with a three tiered approach system regarding the offense labeled on the individual in question. However, states are not restricted from applying the national approach otherwise the tier approach is meant to harmonize information as it is uploaded into the countrywide registry.
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As much as a law may sound tough, issues of implementation could introduce intricacies. For instance, origins of public notification, lack of supporting data determining the efficacy of public notification, the cost associated with implementing procedures, subsequent violence and the risk of notoriety, extension to other crimes as well as the constitutional rights of the individuals in question especially the right to privacy is doubtful (Levi, 2008).
Despite the expected crime-reduction consequences of registration and notification acts, their effectiveness remains a rather doubtful point. For example, the question whether the Megan’s act could have saved Megan herself is often raised. The aspects of reliability of the registries information, its usefulness and crime-preventing effects as well as the collateral consequences of the legislative acts for the community and offenders’ trying to reintegrate with it require further empirical investigation.
Knowledge as power for preventing crimes
Working on the registration and community notification acts, the legislators did not take into consideration certain hindrances limiting their crime-reducing effects. The question whether awareness is sufficient for taking protecting steps and preventing the acts of sexual offence is rooted in the accuracy of the databases information and the community’s reaction to the provided information.
The availability and accuracy of identification data on registrants are considered to be the Achilles’ heel of the registration and community notification acts. The method of registering the ex-offenders in the nationwide registries has got plenty of limitations and imperfections.
Logan (2009) noted that “expecting that ex-offenders, individuals with a proven capacity for antisocial conduct, will cooperate with the government in their ongoing surveillance and stigmatization would appear contrary to both logic and human experience” (p. 110). On the one hand, people unwilling to obey the laws in future would find the ways for escaping and not following the regulation norms.
Certainly, Adam Walsh Act requires offender’s regular attendance of the police office and updating their contacting and identifying information. Still, it does not make the escape from the system impossible.
The only measure imposed by the police with the aim of verifying the information would be sending nonreturnable letters to individuals known for their criminal past. On the other hand, the awareness that the police and the community watch their actions influences the self-perception and behavior of those ex-offenders which potentially could become repeated criminals.
The registration and notification procedures may raise the caution of the public towards the offender; however, this does not assure absolute safety (Solove, 2003). In fact, it may only restrain a potential repeat offender, thus reduce cases allied to them from recurring. Improving general vigilance may serve better such that potential victims are equally cautious of either those who are repeat offenders as well as new offenders.
The need to rid of society the vice should supersede the desire to stigmatize the offenders. Preventing the problem serves comparatively better than managing the same. Some of those who may have committed the offence once may not engage in such behaviors thus a disciplined mechanism may come in handy in reintegrating them back to the society.
General vigilance will not only focus on historical cases but also on development mechanisms that will prevent future occurrences. This in a way would solve the problem before it happens.
In a way the solution will focus on society itself providing solution that are facing them than leaning on the state law as the defender. Lives lost as well as pain afflicted on victims may not be reversed once the vice is committed much as the legal action is taken. General vigilance will keep any potential offender at bay as the victims to be are afore armed to their defense.
The question whether the public awareness provides the potential victims and their families with the power for preventing the crimes remains rather disputable. As it was cited in O’Brien (1996) Karen Spinner, the spokeswoman of Association on Correction noted that “Knowing doesn’t stop it, and this law hasn’t improved the problem one iota” (p. 3).
It was found out that Megan’s parents were aware of an ex-offender living in their neighborhood, but this knowledge did not motivate them for taking the appropriate steps and protecting their child. Megan’s law has got a lot of opponents whose opinion as to the effectiveness of this registration and community notification act is rather categorical.
For example, as it was cited in O’Brien (1996), Martone, one of the opponents admitted that “It’s a little like a lion escaping from the zoo, and the cops come around with a picture of the lion” (p. 3). These emotional statements reflect rather the community’s perception of the situation and most citizens’ reaction to the enhanced awareness.
The inaccuracy of the registries information, citizens’ misconceptions and other imperfections of the system decrease the effectiveness of the laws and result in various collateral consequences of the registration and notification procedures. However, the fact that there is much space left for improving notification does not mean that it is senseless, and its benefits should not be underestimated.
Collateral consequences of Megan’s law
The enforcement of registration and public notification acts had significant impact on life of the society and crime preventing leading to positive and negative, willing and unwilling effects. The main collateral consequences of the laws aimed at raising the public awareness are panic in the society and the registered offenders’ difficulties in reintegration with the society even after the appropriate treatment course.
Depending on the neighborhood setting, registration and notification procedures may have less impact. In some cases, it may cause public hysteria among parents and their children as well as their relatives when they are not aware of it (Bonnar-Kidd, 2010). This reactionary character may cause tension in the neighborhood as well as result to disharmony and lack of commitment even in other matters that need mutual concern. Such as, volunteer program, among others.
In most cases the community notification results in public hysteria and panic, while it is almost impossible for the citizens to react to the information concerning the registered ex-offender living in their neighborhood. For example, Bonnar-Kidd (2010) provides an example of an incident that took place in New York rural area in 2007, where after the notification about two registered sex-offenders living in the area, the members of the small community posted the signs warning that monsters lived there on the front doors of their homes.
At the same time the citizens cannot feel in safety and may start panic after learning about the sex-offenders living so close to them. As it was cited in Bonnar-Kidd (2010), describing her feelings related to her awareness of the ex-offender living next doors, one of mothers noted: “I have slept approximately a combined 5 hours in the past 3 nights because I wake up in a panic and I need to get up and make sure that my children are okay” (Sexual offender laws and prevention of sexual violence or recidivism).
In order to relieve hysteria and panic in the society as the main collateral consequences of public notification, the states governments imposed various measures. For example, in some states the safety zones to which the ex-offenders were not allowed were organized, while others preferred GPS monitoring of the ex-criminals. In some states the inscription “sex-offender” was included into the driver’s license.
In other places they were prohibited to use the Internet connection or even undergo mandatory chemical castration. At the same time some of these measures violate the rights of the ex-offenders and deprive them of opportunities of reintegration with the society. In some states in the US, the offender should undergo treatment before release.
If the offender has not fully recovered for registration and notification procedures then this may have adverse effects. Much as committing the offence, how the offender is handled could be tormenting leading to attempted suicide or he/she may resort to similar incidences.
In a society where there is tendency to discriminate offenders or else mistreat them, such conduct could catalyze reactionary behavior. In this case, the community in which the offender has been reintegrated may aggravate the problems hence neither they nor the offender could contribute in preventing the vice.
It is even argued whether Adam Walsh Act is a kind of ex post facto law which is prohibited in Article 1, section 9 of the United States Constitution. The fact is that this legislative statute allows re-punishing a certain group of the ex-offenders during their lives, mo matter how much time has passed since the moment of their actual crime.
This registration and public notification law divides the sex-offenders into three groups depending upon the gravity of their crime and hazard they pose to the society. The failure to register and provide the accurate information is considered to be a felony resulting in serious punishment.
According to Bonnar-Kidd (2010), there are more issues of health that should be attended to rather than to focus on assault. Attention should be focused on physical and mental healing of the victims than seeking criminal justice. The registration and notification procedures may cause more harm than save the situation especially when victims are not well informed and guided towards appreciating their status.
Retribution and self-denial may result leading to new sets of crime. Priority on victims should focus on recovery, restoration of normal life and if possible reconciliation between the principal parties. A situation where emphasis is put on punishing the offender even after serving maximum sentence makes it difficult for the reformed offender and victim to interact freely.
Actually, how these legal procedures are applied may result to more cases going unreported in the fear of public scrutiny. With the entry of high-speed connection and communication between people and wide access to information especially in the internet, many may dislike publicity associated with the wrong reasons.
The degree of ultimate success achieved from implementing the legal procedures should also be seen in how the victims are both protected from future attacks as well as have their lives restored to normalcy. The public should not be protected at the expense of trauma on victims.
Barriers for ex-offenders’ reintegration with the society
The fact is that the measures aimed at isolating of the ex-offenders in the society might appear to be ineffective having negative impact on their further personal development. Facing various barriers in the process of their reintegration with the society, including the housing, employment and education limitations, the registered criminals might become discouraged and disillusioned. It increases their risk of committing subsequent crimes.
The former sex-offenders are monitored during their studies at colleges or even not allowed to take courses presupposing close contact with other participants of the teaching-learning process. The results of the empirical studies proved that the registered ex-offender have more employment problems than individuals with a criminal history. Community segregation is another collateral consequence of the notification acts.
Bonnar-Kidd (2010) noted that “We are supposed to be stopping violence, not promoting it, and what does it promote when you tell everyone where these guys live?” (Sexual offender laws and prevention of sexual violence or recidivism). A lot of cases against the ex-offenders were registered after the reinforcement of the public notification acts, resulting in their aggression in response.
Thus, Megan’s law and Adam Walsh Act creating barriers for ex-offenders reintegration in the society as one of the main unwilling consequence of their reinforcement are not only ineffective but even increase the risk of committing extra crimes.
The inaccuracy of the data provided by the state registries, imperfections of the system and various collateral consequences of the laws reduced the effectiveness of these legislative acts.
Megan’s law and Adam Walsh Act had the converse effect on the atmosphere in the community. As opposed to their primary goal of preventing the crime, raising the public awareness with the aim of taking the self-protecting steps, the collateral consequences of the project, such as panic and hysteria among the community members and hindrances for ex-offenders’ reintegration with the society strained reduced the feeling of safety and increased risks of recidivism.
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