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Megan's Law is the name for a federal law, and informal name for subsequent state laws, in the United States requiring law enforcement authorities to make information available to the public regarding registered sex offenders. Laws were created in response to the murder of Megan Kanka. Federal Megan's Law was enacted as a subsection of the Jacob Wetterling Crimes Against Children and Sexually Violent Offender Registration Act of 1994, which merely required sex offenders to register with local law enforcement. Since only few states required registration prior to Megan's death, the state level legislation to bring states in compliance —with both the, registration requirement of Jacob Wetterling Act and community notification required by federal Megan's Law— were crafted simultaneously and are often referred as "Megan's Laws" of individual states. Thus, federal Megan's Law refers to community notification (making registry information public), whereas state level "Megan's Law" may refer to both, sex offender registration and community notification.
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 offense of conviction. 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 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.
Together, Jacob Wetterling Act and Megan's Law provide two major information services: sex offender registry for law enforcement, and community notification for the public. 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.
Precedent of Megan's Law, federal Jacob Wetterling Act of 1994, required each state to create registry for sexual offenders and certain other offenses against children. Under Wetterling Act registry information was kept for law enforcement only, although law enforcement agencies were allowed to release information of specific person when deemed necessary to protect the public. After a high-profile rape and murder of seven-year-old Megan Kanka in Hamilton Township, Mercer County, New Jersey by Jesse Timmendequas, a sex offender with two previous convictions of sex crimes against small children living across the street from Megan, her parents Richard and Maureen Kanka went on crusade to change the law by demanding mandatory community notification on sex offenders, arguing that registration required under Jacob Wetterling Act was not sufficient protection measure. They said that Megan would be alive had they known of criminal history of Timmendequas. Paul Kramer sponsored package of seven bills known as Megan's Law in New Jersey General Assembly in 1994. 89 days after Megan was murdered, New Jersey enacted Megan's Law which required sex offender registration, with a database tracked by the state, and whereabouts of high-risk sex offenders moving into a neighborhood to be made public. Before Megan's death only five states required sex offenders to register with local law enforcement as required in Jacob Wetterling Act.
The New Jersey law became model for federal legislation, introduced in the House of Representatives by Congressman Dick Zimmer. On May 17, 1996 President Bill Clinton signed federal Megan's Law, an amendment to the Jacob Wetterling Act, that set the guidelines for the state statutes, requiring states to notify the public, although officials could decide how much public notification is necessary, based on the level of danger posed by an offender.
Ineffectiveness of law
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.
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." However, the bill failed to reach the floor of the Senate.
Opponents of Megan's Law, like Women Against Registry, Reform Sex Offender Laws, Inc. and Human Rights Watch, have called the law overbroad and an invitation to vigilante violence. They cite cases such as that of William Elliot, one of two people located through the Registry and killed by the vigilante Stephen Marshall. Elliot was required to register 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 killed registrant Michael Dodele (and was sentenced to life in prison). 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 of the laws' effectiveness, the automatic inclusion of offenders on the registry without determining the risk of reoffense (by applying scientifically validated risk assessment tools), the scientifically unsupported popular belief in high recidivism, and the counter-effectiveness of the laws, which can actually undermine, rather than improve public safety by exacerbating factors (e.g. unemployment, instability) that may lead to recidivism. In addition, civil rights and reformist organizations highlight the adverse collateral 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 victims' rights 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.
- Sex offender registry
- 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)