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Community notification laws, which allow the release of offender information to citizens and community groups, have attracted widespread attention and support across North America. Those in favour of such laws, which generally apply only to sex offenders, argue that the need to protect the public, the public's right to know, the ineffectiveness of treatment programs, the perceived higher recidivism rates among sex offenders and the psychological damage often suffered by victims of sexual offences justify releasing information on sex offenders.
The first community notification law was introduced in Washington State in 1990 and at least 20 states have since enacted community notification laws. Community notification laws in the United States vary from state to state, but range from broad community notification, where offender information is released to the general public, to restricted notification in which only individuals and groups believed to be at risk are notified. Some states allow public access to registration information, where citizens can call their local law enforcement office to find out whether someone they know is a registered sex offender.
Community notification in the United States has, in some instances, taken on extreme forms. In Louisiana, for example, all released sex offenders are required to mail out public notices which outline their name, address and the offence committed. These notices must be sent to the superintendent of the school district and to community members who live within one-square mile in a rural area or three-square blocks in an urban area of the offender's residence. The Board of Parole may also order the offender to conduct any other form of notification it deems necessary, including posting signs and bumper stickers or wearing clothing labelled with the offence committed.
Recently, the United States government enacted federal legislation about community notification. The law requires states to set up registries of all sexual offenders and offenders convicted of crimes against children. The legislation also encourages states to release registered information to the public when necessary for public safety.
In Canada, the Corrections and Conditional Release Act outlines the Correctional Service of Canada's (CSC) responsibility with regard to releasing information when federal inmates are released into the community. CSC is required to share relevant information about an offender with any body or agency which will be making release decisions or supervising the offender upon release. CSC is also required to notify police forces before the release of a federal inmate on an unescorted temporary absence, parole or statutory release. In the case of a federal inmate released at the end of sentence, CSC is only required to notify police of the inmate's release when it is reasonably believed that the inmate poses a threat to someone.
At least five provinces in Canada, including British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba and Ontario are currently notifying the public about the release of sex offenders. Alberta and Manitoba have established specific protocols regarding the disclosure of offender information to the public.
Alberta introduced its community notification protocol in April, 1996. The protocol has its roots in Section 31 of the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act (FOIPPA). Section 31 of FOIPPA requires the head of a public body to disclose information to the public or certain members of the public about a "risk of significant harm" to the public's safety or any information which is "clearly in the public interest." The protocol was developed to establish guidelines and agreements about how Section 31 of FOIPPA would be implemented. It is an agreement between Alberta Justice, CSC and chiefs of police.
Information regarding a potentially dangerous offender can only be released by a police agency, but referrals to the police can originate from Alberta Justice, CSC, a member of the public or an organization. Alberta Justice will use certain criteria to assess each case. These criteria include: (1) the offender's age and health, (2) the circumstances of the offence(s), including degree of violence, premeditation and number of victims, (3) offence history, (4) access to possible victims, (5) past performance on community supervision, (6) treatment program participation, (7) assessment results, (8) employment and (9) family and community support.
Once a determination has been made that an individual presents a risk to the public and the case is referred to the police, the police determine if any current legislation restricts the release of information. An assessment is then made regarding the balance between public safety and individual privacy interests. The police also review any recommendations made by the referral agent. The FOIPP commissioner and the offender are made aware of the decision to notify and the offender has the opportunity to argue against the decision.
The Alberta protocol calls for disclosure if it is in the public's best interest. This disclosure should only be that which is necessary to achieve the "required" effect, that being to enhance public protection. Further, disclosing information should be weighed against an offender's right to privacy and the risk associated with alarming the public.
One concern regarding Alberta's protocol is the fact that the decision over each aspect of notification is left up to individual police agencies. Different police chiefs will invariably have different views on notification. We have already witnessed differences between notification in Edmonton and Calgary. For uniformity in the application of the protocol in Alberta, a panel similar to the Manitoba Community Notification Advisory Committee should be formed to make recommendations for each case. The Manitoba Committee is comprised of representatives from criminal justice agencies at the federal, provincial and municipal levels. The Committee makes recommendations to the police regarding notification; the final decision on notification is made by the police.
While community notification has gained popularity in recent years, there are several limitations to and problems associated with the practice. Community notification is intended to enhance public safety. However, community notification laws actually give the community a false sense of security. The community may believe that all sex offenders have been identified, whereas this is not the case for a number of reasons. First, many sexual offences are never reported to the police. According to the 1993 General Social Survey (GSS), 90% of victims aged fifteen and over fail to report incidents of sexual assault. Second, of those sexual offences reported, only a portion (69%) are cleared by the police. An additional concern is that law enforcement agencies lack sufficient resources to inform the public of every potentially dangerous offender. For example, Washington State's sex offender registration and notification laws have placed a considerable strain on law enforcement agencies. Police agencies have difficulties maintaining sex offender registries, not to mention the overwhelming task of verifying the information and informing the public. Given these limitations, community notification can do little to enhance public safety.
Critics of community notification argue that it constitutes cruel and unusual punishment. For offenders who successfully complete their terms of imprisonment and who wish to reintegrate themselves into society, community notification laws impose further punitive sanctions against them. Their debt to society has been paid and any further action to restrict their liberties constitutes cruel and unusual punishment. Community notification laws are a barrier to offenders' reintegration into society and adversely affect their efforts to become productive, valued members of the community. An offender cannot become a responsible member of the community as long as he or she is labelled and treated as a criminal.
Another problem with community notification is that it often results in vigilante behaviour against released offenders. A 1993 study of Washington's notification laws revealed that 26% of sex offenders, subject to notification laws, had been harassed by the public. Furthermore, in 73% of these cases, the offender's family was also harassed. In Alberta, community notification of the release of a convicted sex offender led to public protests and vigilante behaviour. After arriving in Edmonton, the man was subject to threats by a community determined to drive him out. The man was awakened on several occasions by several people pounding on his door, warning him to leave or die. Shortly thereafter, the man left Edmonton on a one-way bus ticket to another city provided by Alberta Social Services.
A final limitation of community notification is that it does not affect recidivism rates. A Washington study compared a group of sex offenders who were subject to notification laws, with a similar group of sex offenders who were released prior to the implementation of such laws. The study found no statistically significant difference in the sex offence recidivism rates of the two groups. Further, there were no significant differences in the rates of general recidivism. In light of this study, community notification appears to have no effect upon the sexual recidivism rates of sexual offenders and, therefore, does not enhance public protection.
The John Howard Society of Alberta believes that people have the right to live in a safe and peaceful society, as well as a responsibility implied by this right to respect the law. Community notification is believed by some to enhance public safety. However, several limitations to and problems associated with community notification indicate that this is not the case. We feel that the release of offender information to the general public, particularly if the public has not been given appropriate advice on how to interpret and act on the information provided, causes more harm than good and does nothing to enhance public safety. However, community notification in limited circumstances (i.e. notifying victims or witnesses about the release of an offender), may be justified.
* References available upon request.
NOTICE: We recently updated our brochure entitled "Catalogue of Resource Papers" which briefly describes over 70 publications of the John Howard Society of Alberta. The publications reflect the views of the Society on a range of criminal justice issues. For a free copy of the brochure, contact:
Red Deer John Howard Society is pleased to announce a proactive initiative of the Red Deer RCMP. Red Deer "U" Bike was launched on August 21, 1996. The program offers free bicycles for public usage. Twenty-five bicycles were placed in bike racks around the city. Community members can ride the bicycles and then leave them for others to use.
Based on a similar initiative in Portland, Oregon, Red Deer "U" Bike aims to reduce bike theft in Red Deer, promote exercise and health among the economically disadvantaged and encourage environmentally friendly transportation choices.
Red Deer "U" Bike is a cooperative community effort. The program utilizes unclaimed bicycles from the police lost and found. The bicycles are converted into simple, one speed bikes and painted lime green by local volunteers. This distinguishes the bicycles and makes the bikes and their parts less attractive to thieves. Bike racks were donated by a local business and were set up in front of local establishments. A local restaurant now offers a free beverage to anyone who rides one of the bikes to their establishment and parks it at their bike rack.
While some initial problems were experienced with the program, such as vandalism and stolen parts, the benefits of the program have far outweighed the problems. So far, Red Deer RCMP have received very positive feedback about the initiative. For example, unemployed persons have called to say they have used the bikes to go job hunting.
Red Deer "U" Bike anticipates having many more free bikes on the streets of Red Deer next summer. In addition to the unclaimed lost and found bikes, community members are now donating bicycles to the program. Plans are also underway to launch a bicycle maintenance program for school children next summer. The children will learn about proper bicycle care and maintenance and will practice their skills by servicing Red Deer "U" Bikes.
Red Deer "U" Bike is planning to incorporate. Red Deer John Howard Society is proud that one of their staff members will be serving on the soon to be formed Red Deer "U" Bike Executive.
For more information, contact:
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