Megan's Law is an informal name for laws in the United States requiring law enforcement authorities to make information available to the public regarding registered sex offenders, which was created in response to the murder of Megan Kanka. Individual states decide what information will be made available and how it should be disseminated. Commonly included information is the offender's name, picture, address, incarceration date, and nature of crime. The information is often displayed on free public websites, but can be published in newspapers, distributed in pamphlets, or through various other means.
At the federal level, Megan's Law is known as the Sexual Offender (Jacob Wetterling) Act of 1994, and requires persons convicted of sex crimes against children to notify local law enforcement of any change of address or employment after release from custody (prison or psychiatric facility). The notification requirement may be imposed for a fixed period of time—usually at least ten years—or permanently.
Some states may legislate registration for all sex crimes, even if no minors were involved. It is a felony in most jurisdictions to fail to register or fail to update information.
Megan's Law provides two major information services to the public: sex offender registration and community notification. The details of what is provided as part of sex offender registration and how community notification is handled vary from state to state, and in some states the required registration information and community notification protocols have changed many times since Megan's Law was passed. The Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act supplements Megan's Law with new registration requirements and a three-tier system for classifying sex offenders according to certain listed offenses requiring registration.
Paul Kramer was the sponsor in 1994 in the New Jersey General Assembly of a package of seven bills known as Megan's Law that were approved one month after the rape and murder of seven-year-old Megan Kanka by Jesse Timmendequas, a sex offender who had been previously convicted of sex crimes and had lived across the street from Kanka together with two other sex offenders. He had killed Megan Kanka after luring her into his house under the pretext of showing her his new puppy.
The bills would require sex offender registration, with a database tracked by the state, community notification of registered sex offenders moving into a neighborhood and life in prison without a chance of parole for those convicted of a second sexual assault. Kramer expressed incredulity at the controversy created by the bills, saying that "Megan Kanka would be alive today" if the bills he proposed had been law.
The parents of Megan, Maureen and Richard Kanka, were instrumental in promoting the need for legislation in media interviews and legislative testimony. The Kankas also supported Megan's Law by submitting amicus briefs in state and federal courts in which the constitutionality of Megan's Law was challenged.
Study of effectiveness
A December 2008 study of the law in New Jersey concluded that it had no effect on community tenure (i.e., time to first re-arrest), showed no demonstrable effect in reducing sexual re-offenses, had no effect on the type of sexual re-offense or first time sexual offense (still largely child molestation), and had no effect on reducing the number of victims of sexual offenses. The authors felt that given the lack of demonstrated effect of the law on sexual offenses, its growing costs may not be justifiable.
Michigan adopted Megan's law soon after its inception in New Jersey and modified it with some notable changes. Each "sex"-related offense is placed on the registry with largely vague categories of severity numbered 1 through 4. The specific details of the offense, the circumstances, and various other factors are taken into consideration when charges are brought and listed on the site along with the driver's license picture of the individual. Regardless of offense level, the individual is placed on the registry for a minimum of 25 years, up to life. Certain Holmes Youthful Trainee Act (HYTA) cases are not listed on the public version of the registry while the individuals are minors.
Michigan's law also includes registration as sex offenders for certain crimes without any sexual element, such as kidnapping and public vulgarity or indecency (swearing in public).
On May 20, 2014, the United States House of Representatives voted to pass the International Megan's Law to Prevent Demand for Child Sex Trafficking (H.R. 4573; 113th Congress), a bill that would require the notification of foreign governments when an American registered as a sex offender of children is going to be traveling to their country. According to Rep. Bill Flores (R-TX), the bill would enable the United States "to notify destination countries that a sex offender who has previously abused a child is traveling to that country and encourage reciprocal notification to protect American children from abuse by foreign sex workers."
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The effectiveness of Megan's Law, the Jacob Wetterling Act and the Adam Walsh Act are constant fodder for media and politicians alike. Proponents of the laws maintain that laws are necessary for the control and monitoring of dangerous individuals that live among the general populace.
Opponents like National RSOL and Human Rights Watch have called the law overbroad and "vigilante's charter", citing cases such as that of William Elliot, one of two people located on the list and killed by the vigilante Stephen Marshall. Elliot was on the Megan List because his girlfriend was "two weeks shy of her 16th birthday" while Elliot himself was also a teenager. In a similar case, Ivan Garcia Oliver was sentenced to life in jail for the murder of Michael Dodele. Oliver said he had acted to protect his son: "I felt that by not taking evasive action as a father in the right direction, I might as well have taken my child to some swamp filled with alligators." In fact, Dodele was 67 years old, was stabbed 62 times by Oliver, and his accuser/victim was an older woman, not a child.
Treatment professionals such as ATSA criticize the lack of evidence supporting effectiveness of the laws, the automatic inclusion of the offender to the registry when convicted under one of the listed statutes without determining the risk of the offender by applying scientifically validated risk assessment tools, the scientifically disputed premise of high risk of recidivism and some consequences of the laws that might actually undermine public safety by exacerbating factors (e.g. unemployment, instability) correlated with recidivism. In addition, civil right and reformist organizations highlight the adverse effects on the family members of registrants, and question the fairness of the registries as indefinite punishment, and when applied to certain offender groups, such as juveniles and young adults engaging in consensual acts. Some victim right advocates like Patty Wetterling have presented similar critique.
One senator has suggested that sex offenders in each jurisdiction be ordered to report to their local jail on October 31 (Halloween) of each year to protect children from being abducted during "this night of intentional identity confusion". The logistics of this have proven to be difficult to justify, as there have been no reported cases of abduction related to children visiting an offender's home on Halloween.
Michigan state representative Paul Scott issued this statement on October 14, 2011: "Although Halloween is a joyous time for many young children, it is also a time when sex offenders don't have to troll play areas or neighborhood hangouts to gain access to young people," said Scott, R-Grand Blanc. "Unsuspecting children will inevitably knock on the doors of sex offenders this Saturday, creating a potentially dangerous situation."
His comments reflect the general attitude of many politicians, legislators and law-enforcement officials across the country. Virtually all 50 states have enacted similar requirements for sex offenders on Halloween night.
"Convicted sex offenders should never be allowed to take part in the Halloween tradition," Scott said. "Michigan must take a 'lights out' approach when it comes to the homes of sex offenders to help young people stay safe during Halloween."
Considering extensive research done on true sex offense relapse rates — averaging under 9% for the entire country[dubious ] from 1983 to 2010 — suggest that Scott's comments are less fact and more of a personal agenda, the true scope of Megan's Law is revealed to be quite broad and open to interpretation.
Reformists have conceded that the registry and the above laws have a place, however with some modifications. The typical relapse rate statistics provided by the State of Michigan show that an average of 3.5% (years 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008) of registered offenders re-offend (a reoffense is defined as committing a similar offense, missing a parole or probation meeting, or failing to re-register as is required four times a year). The other 96.5% on average, for the years stated, are classified as first time offenders with no prior felonies or "sex"-related crimes on record.
- Sex offender registration
- Jessica's Law
- Sarah's Law
- Jonathan's Law
- List of legislation named for a person
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- relapse of Sex Offenders Released from Prison in 1994 (USDOJ government study)
- Facts about Megan's Law and Sex Offenders in New York State (Summary of NY Dept. of Corrections study)
- The Angry Offender (Integrates Megan's Law effects with data from USDOJ and NYDOC studies)
- Megan's Law Official Website for California
- Megan's Law ineffective, study says (by Andrew Vachss, Inquirer Trenton Bureau, February 7, 2009)
- Politics and Irrelevance: Community Notification Statutes
- Sex Predators Can't Be Saved (opinion piece by Andrew Vachss, The New York Times, January 5, 1993)
- How Many Dead Children Are Needed to End the Rhetoric? (opinion piece by Andrew Vachss, New York Daily News, August 12, 1994)