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Wsipp Ws's Sex Offender Community Notification Law 2006

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Washington State
Institute for
Public Policy
110 Fifth Avenue Southeast, Suite 214 • PO Box 40999 • Olympia, WA 98504-0999 • (360) 586-2677 • FAX (360) 586-2793 • www.wsipp.wa.gov

February 2006

WASHINGTON STATE’S COMMUNITY NOTIFICATION LAW:
15 YEARS OF CHANGE
Introduction
In 1990, the Washington State Legislature unanimously
passed the Community Protection Act. One of the law’s
provisions, community notification, authorized law
enforcement agencies to release sex offender information
to the public when they determined “disclosure of the
information is relevant and necessary to protect the
public.”1 Law enforcement agencies are immune from
civil liability for damages for any decision to release, or
not release, “relevant and necessary” sex offender
information to the public.
This report summarizes the legislative changes in
Washington’s community notification law since 1990.
State law regarding community notification has evolved
over time. As the statute has been amended over the
past 15 years, the types of offenders subject to
notification have expanded, and the process of risk
assessment and notification has become more uniform
across the state. A statewide website of sex offenders
was created in 2002.2

1990
The Community Protection Act required convicted sex
offenders to register a home address with law
enforcement after release from prison. For the first time in
the U.S., public officials were also authorized to release
information to the public regarding dangerous sex
offenders.
“Public agencies are authorized to release
relevant and necessary information regarding sex
offenders when the release of the information is
necessary for public protection.”3
Decisions about which sex offenders were dangerous
and how to notify citizens were left to the discretion of
local officials.
Although local law enforcement was ultimately
responsible for notifying the public, state officials provided
information to assist in determining which released sex
offenders posed a significant risk to the community. A
multi-disciplinary committee within the Department of
Corrections (DOC), the End of Sentence Review
Committee (ESRC), which had already been established
1

2
3

RCW 4.24.550.

www.waspc.org.
Section 117, Chapter 3, Laws of 1990.

SUMMARY
In 1990, Washington became the first state to
authorize the release of information regarding sex
offenders to the public. Since then, the law has been
amended numerous times to expand its application,
increase uniformity across counties, and increase
citizen access.
to assess high-risk offenders with multiple needs,
evaluated sex offenders prior to their release.
The ESRC initially issued three types of notifications to
law enforcement: Special Bulletins, Law Enforcement
Alerts, and Teletype. Special Bulletins were issued on
those offenders thought to pose the greatest risk to the
public. Often a Special Bulletin provided the impetus for
local law enforcement agencies to consider notifying the
community about an individual.
The law did not specify a notification system, but most
jurisdictions in the state followed the guidelines
developed by the Washington Association of Sheriffs and
Police Chiefs (WASPC) to determine what actions to take
regarding community notification. These guidelines
established three levels of notification based on the
individual’s perceived risk to reoffend:
•

Level I (low risk): Information (including a
photograph) may be shared with other law
enforcement agencies.

•

Level II (moderate risk): Includes the actions of
Level I, and, in addition, schools, neighbors, and
community groups may be notified of an offender’s
release.

•

Level III (high risk): The most serious offenders are
considered candidates for a Level III notification.
Press releases may be issued in addition to the
actions within Level I and Level II.

1994
In the original legislation, no time frame was specified for
community notification. Following an incident in the state
where neighbors learned about a high-risk sex offender
shortly before he moved to the area, the 1994 Legislature
directed that whenever possible law enforcement inform
the public at least 14 days prior to the offender’s release.
In addition, DOC was to send written notice to law

enforcement officials at least 30 days prior to an offender’s
release.4 Advance notice was intended to give both law
enforcement and the public time to prepare.
Also in 1994, the state Supreme Court upheld the sex
offender registration and community notification statutes.5
The opinion clarified two issues: who should be the
subject of notification, and how law enforcement officials
should determine geographical boundaries related to
notification. In the first area, the opinion stated that a
disclosing agency or individual “must have some
evidence of an offender’s future dangerousness,
likelihood of reoffense, or threat to the community, to
justify disclosure to the public in a given case.”
The court also found that “the geographic scope of
dissemination must rationally relate to the threat posed
by the registered offender. Depending on the particular
methods of an offender, an agency might decide to limit
disclosure only to the surrounding neighborhood, or to
schools and child care centers or, in case of immediate
or imminent risk of harm, the public at large. The scope
of disclosure must relate to the scope of danger.”

1997
In 1997, the notification law was significantly modified to
establish a more consistent statewide approach.7 Prior to
1997, DOC notified law enforcement of a sex offender’s
release in one of three ways. First, for those sex offenders
determined by the ESRC to be a low risk to sexually
reoffend in the community, a teletype notification was sent
to local law enforcement. Second, for those sex offenders
judged at moderate risk to reoffend, a law enforcement
alert was distributed. Third, for those determined to pose a
high risk for sexual reoffense, a special bulletin was sent
that included a summary of the person’s criminal history
and behavior at the institution. Local law enforcement was
responsible for determining sex offenders’ risk level and the
process for notification (flyers, meetings, etc.).
The 1997 legislation directed that a consistent means be
used to determine a sex offender’s risk to the community
as well as a uniform notification process. This work was
done by a large multi-disciplinary group and resulted in
adoption of the Washington State Sex Offender Risk Level
Classification Tool, new notification considerations,
notification formats, and suggested protocols for
community meetings.

1996
The Legislature made two changes to the notification law
in 1996. The first was to ensure that law enforcement
officials were informed in a timely fashion about offenders
moving to their jurisdiction upon release from a jail in
another county.

The three risk levels and corresponding notification
parameters were adjusted as follows:
•

Level I: Those offenders whose risk assessment
indicates a low risk of sexual reoffense within the
community at large. For offenders classified as Level
I, law enforcement shall share information with other
appropriate law enforcement agencies and may
disclose, upon request, relevant, necessary, and
accurate information to any victim or witness and to
any individual community member who lives near the
residence where the offender resides, expects to
reside, or is regularly found.

•

Level II: Those offenders whose risk assessment
indicates a moderate risk of sexual reoffense within
the community at large. For offenders classified as a
Level II, law enforcement may also disclose relevant,
necessary, and accurate information to public and
private schools, child care centers, family daycare
providers, businesses and organizations that serve
primarily children, women, or vulnerable adults, and
neighbors and community groups near the residence
where the offender resides, expects to reside, or is
regularly found.

•

Level III: Those offenders whose risk assessment
indicates a high risk of sexual reoffense within the
community at large. For offenders classified as a Level
III, in addition to the disclosures as a Level II, law
enforcement may also disclose relevant, necessary,
and accurate information to the public at large.”8

The second modification required DOC to implement a
policy governing release plans and supervision of sex
offenders.6 This process was to allow victims, witnesses,
and other interested persons a way to provide
information and comments to officials on potential safety
risks posed by a specific sex offender.
In terms of release plans, new restrictions indicated
where sex offenders under supervision could live
following release from prison. DOC was not to approve a
residence location if a minor victim or child of similar age
or circumstance as a previous victim lived in the
proposed residence, and the state determined that the
offender posed substantial risk. Released sex offenders
could not be permitted to live within “close proximity” of
the current residence of their minor victim unless such a
restriction would impede family reunification efforts
ordered by the court or directed by the Department of
Social and Health Services (DSHS). Also, offenders
could not live within “close proximity” to schools, child
care centers, playgrounds, or other facilities where
children of similar age or circumstance to a victim were
present and determined by the state to be at substantial
risk of harm.

4

7

5

8

SHB 2540, Chapter 129, Laws of 1994.
State v. Ward, 123 Wn2d 488 503 (1994).
6
SHB 2545 Sec. 3, Chapter 215, Laws of 1996.

ESSB 5759, Chapter 364, Laws of 1997.
Washington State Department of Corrections,
www.doc.wa.gov/CPU/lawenf_index.htm

At least six months prior to an eligible sex offender’s
release from prison, the ESRC uses the Sex Offender Risk
Level Classification Tool to calculate the offender’s initial
risk level designation. This tool combines two factors: an
offender’s risk assessment score, and specific notification
considerations.9 The ESRC notification level is then sent
to law enforcement where the offender will live, to
determine the final decision on risk level.
The 1997 Legislature also added offenders convicted of a
kidnapping offense to those subject to community
notification.10

2001
The 2001 Legislature addressed transient and homeless
offenders. First, those individuals required to register who
lack a fixed residence must provide written notice to the
sheriff of the county where he or she last registered within
48 hours after ceasing to have a fixed residence.
Additionally, offenders without a fixed residence must
report weekly in person to the county sheriff.14
Because transient and homeless individuals lack a fixed
residence, local law enforcement was given discretion to
disclose relevant, necessary, and accurate information to
the public at large.

1998
Legislative action in 1998 added students or persons
employed in the state to the group of sex offenders
required to register.11
The Legislature also made the verification of sex
offenders’ addresses more systematic. Law enforcement
officials are required to send a non-forwardable verification
form once a year for each individual. Through this means,
they learn which addresses are current. In addition, the
time period was shortened (from 14 days to within 72
hours) for an offender to register a change of address
within the same county. When offenders move to a new
county, they must send written notice of the change of
address, at least 14 days before moving, to the county
sheriff in the new county of residence and must register
with that sheriff within 24 hours of moving. The person
must also send a written notice of departure within 10 days
to the previous county.12
Finally, the Legislature set new policy regarding when
some offenders can petition the court to be relieved of
registration duties and thus end notification
responsibilities. Any person required to register may
petition the superior court to be relieved of that duty if the
person has spent ten consecutive years in the community
without any new offenses. Additionally, offenders
required to register for offenses committed when the
person was a juvenile (except those prosecuted as
adults) may petition the superior court to be relieved of
that duty. For offenses committed when the individual
was 15 years of age or older, the duty to register can be
relieved if the court finds that future registration will not
serve the purposes of the law. For those under the age
of 15, the court must also find evidence that the offender
has not been adjudicated of any additional sex or
kidnapping offenses during the 24 months following the
original offense.13

9

R. Barnoski (2005). Sex offender sentencing in Washington
State: Notification levels and recidivism (Document No. 05-121203), Olympia: Washington State Institute for Public Policy.
10
SSB 5621, Chapter 113, Laws of 1997.
11
HB 1172 Sec. 1, Chapter 220, Laws of 1998.
12
HB 1172 Sec. 2, Chapter 220, Laws of 1998.
13
HB 1172 Sec. 3, Chapter 220, Laws of 1998.

For Level III notifications, statewide policy was set
regarding public access.15 The sheriff must publish the
notice or news release in at least one legal newspaper with
general circulation in the area. In addition, a list of Level III
sex offenders for each county must be published by the
sheriff twice a year.
A list of Level III sex offenders must also be available on a
publicly accessible website maintained by the county
sheriff and updated at least once per month.

2002
The 2002 Legislature directed WASPC to create a
statewide publicly accessible registered sex offender
website.16 The website is to post information on all Level
III registered sex offenders in the state, including name,
relevant criminal convictions, address by the hundred block
designation (e.g., 600, 500), physical description, and
photograph. The website shall provide mapping
capabilities and allow the public to search for sex offenders
by last name, type of conviction, address by hundred block,
city, county, and zip code.
The legislation also mandated that WASPC receive
notification when local law enforcement officials change the
risk level classification assigned by the ESRC.

2003
The 2003 Legislature broadened the scope of the
statewide website by adding Level II offenders.17 The
same information and citizen access for Level III offenders
should be included for Level II offenders.
In 2003, the Legislature ruled that websites must meet
federal constitutional standards. The U.S. Supreme Court
unanimously ruled that states may publish names, pictures,
and other information about convicted sex offenders on the
Internet without giving each offender a hearing to
14

HB 1952 Chapter 169, Laws of 2001.
ESSB 6143, Chapter 283, Laws of 2001.
16
SSB 6488, Chapter 118, Laws of 2002.
17
SB 5410 Chapter 217, Laws of 2003.
15

determine whether he or she is still dangerous.18 In a
separate 6 to 3 ruling, the Court turned down a challenge
from sex offenders who argued they deserved a chance to
prove that they are not dangerous and thereby avoid
having their pictures and addresses posted on the
Internet.19

2005
In 2005, registered kidnapping offenders were added to
the statewide registered sex offender website.20 In
addition, public libraries were added to the list of
organizations and individuals to receive Level II and
Level III notifications.21
Laws were also passed concerning sex offenders in
schools.22 Any adult or juvenile required to register must
notify the sheriff of their intent to attend a public or private
school, and the sheriff has the responsibility to promptly
inform the principal of the school. The principal is
responsible for disclosing the information on Level II and
Level III offenders to every teacher of the student and to
any other personnel the principal believes should be
aware of the student’s background.
The state established “community protection zones” to
restrict certain released sex offenders from living within
800 feet of a school.23 This law was given a July 2006
expiration date, with the expectation for review by the
Joint Task Force on Sex Offender Management.
Courts must prohibit offenders convicted for the first time
of the most serious sex offenses against minors from
residing in a community protection zone after release
from prison.24
Discretionary decisions by law enforcement agencies and
DOC are immune from civil liability for damages, as long
as officials exercise good faith.
Finally, the 2005 Legislature created a Joint Task Force
on Sex Offender Management to further examine issues
of community safety and the management of sex
offenders in the community.25
The task force was asked to make recommendations to
the governor and the legislature on the following subjects:
•

18

The effectiveness of community protection zones
and other strategies to promote community safety,
including recommendations on proactive and
reactive approaches to sex offender residence
locations and any statutory, constitutional, or

Connecticut Dept. of Public Safety v. John Doe, 01-1231.
Otte v. Doe, 01-729.
20
HB 1338, Chapter 228, Laws of 2005.
21
HB 1161, Chapter 99, Laws of 2005.
22
HB 2101, Chapter 380, Laws of 2005.
23
SHB 1147, Chapter 436, Laws of 2005.
24
During community custody status.
25
SHB 1147, Sec. 4, Chapter 436, Laws of 2005.

practical limitations on the state’s ability to address
sex offender housing requirements;
•

Standardization of the community sex offender
notification process;

•

Applicability of the public disclosure act to sex
offender information sharing;

•

The training of law enforcement, criminal justice staff,
and school personnel to increase community safety in
relationship to sex offender notification and
management strategies; and

•

The impact and advisability of pre-notification of local
government officials related to sex offender residence
location.

Summary
Since Washington became the first state to enact a sex
offender notification law in 1990, extensive amendments
have made the law more specific and encompassing. Time
frames for dissemination of information regarding released
sex offenders have been instituted. Amendments have
addressed the issue of restricting where offenders may live
following their release, culminating in the establishment of
community protection zones in 2005.
The process of assessing risk levels has become more
refined with the development of the Sex Offender Risk Level
Classification Tool, and model policies for the distribution of
information based on offender risk level. The scope of the
law has been broadened to include additional categories of
offenders such as kidnapping offenders and those who are
in the state temporarily because of education or
employment.
Registration and notification procedures for homeless and
transient offenders have been refined. A statewide sex
offender website is maintained by WASPC where citizens
can easily learn the location of Level II and III registered sex
offenders.
State policy regarding registration and notification of sex
offenders has evolved significantly over the last 15 years. It
is reasonable to expect this evolutionary process to
continue.

The Institute wishes to thank Cheryl Milloy, a consultant,
for her contributions to this paper.

19

For further information, contact Roxanne Lieb at
(360) 586-2768 or liebr@wsipp.wa.gov.

Document No. 06-02-1202

 

 

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