Overview of “Measuring the impact of sex offender notification on community adoption of protective behaviors”



Research Summary

The research presented here empirically evaluates the claim that sex offender notification is positively correlated with the public's adoption of protective behavior, while considering the impact ecological context has on the decision to adopt protective behaviors. This study assumes that people make decisions about their personal safety behaviors after calculating their perceived victimization risk; risk that is based upon a number of both personal and ecological variables including one's sex, race, parent status, neighborhood type, and whether or not one has received notification about a sex offender residing in close proximity. Holding that these factors impact behavior, a person then acts—or does not act—according to his or her calculation of risk. Because community notification is often geographically specific and because it is well documented that known sex offenders are concentrated in socially disadvantaged neighborhoods this study gives primacy to measuring protective behavior differences between socially disorganized neighborhoods and socially organized neighborhoods. Specifically, this research asks:

  • 1if notified residents undertake more protective behaviors on behalf of themselves or loved ones than do non-notified residents;
  • 2if there is a difference in protective actions taken by notified residents of socially organized neighborhoods compared to notified residents of socially disorganized neighborhoods; and,
  • 3if there is a difference in protective behavior between residents of socially disorganized neighborhoods who receive notification and those who do not.

To explore these relationships a series of regression analyses was conducted on data generated from an adaptation of Ferraro's (1995) Fear of Crime in America Survey (n =407). This study found no statistically significant relationship between receiving notification about a high-risk sex offender and the adoption of self-protective behaviors, controlling for differences in sociodemographics and neighborhood type. This has important implications as it undermines the very assumption upon which notification laws are based—that if people have knowledge of a person who poses a potential threat to their safety, they will change their behavior to mitigate this risk. This research project did not discern any significant group differences in response to notification, suggesting that—across the board—community members simply are not motivated by notification to change their personal safety habits. This study did find, however, that notified parents adopt more behaviors to protect their children than do non-notified parents. While the effect size is modest at best, this may not matter to the public and its elected officials as much of the traction gained by community notification laws has been in their potential to protect children and other vulnerable populations.

Policy Implications

Sex offender notification laws have been consistently upheld as constitutional with the most consistent legal argument for retaining these laws being the superseding right of the public to know about an offender's presence in the community over the offender's right to privacy because the disclosure of offender information served the legitimate function of public safety. This argument assumes that knowledge gained from community notification leads to behavioral changes. The data presented here do not support the claim that the public is safer from sex offenders due to community notification laws. The data do, however, provide modest support for a key assumption of notification laws: that children receive more protection against victimization when their families know about a high-risk sex offender residing nearby. What is unclear is the quality and relevance of this increased protection. The vast majority of child sexual abuse victims know their perpetrator, and the vast majority of offenders are not subject to notification laws. Victim advocates have suggested that notification laws may actually make some populations more vulnerable because it keeps most of the attention, education, and resources on the least likely perpetrator: a stranger.

The role of evidence-based research in informing this politically sensitive issue will likely unfold under the research agenda prioritized in the Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act. Should future research confirm existent findings that notification laws offer little to no prophylactic benefit against sexual victimization, constitutionalists may be able to successfully argue that since these laws largely do not serve their intended public good, they are indefensible violations of civil liberties.