Megan's Law Poorly Enforced
Megan's Law Poorly Enforced
Date: April 3, 2004
Source: The Washington Times. "Megan's Law Poorly Enforced." April 3, 2004. 〈http://www.washtimes.com/national/20040403-113759-4539r.htm〉 (accessed September 22, 2005).
About the Author: This article was written without attribution by a staff writer for the Washington Times; a daily newspaper published in Washington, D.C. with an average daily circulation of 103,017.
On July 29, 1994, seven-year-old Megan Kanka of Hamilton Township, New Jersey, was sexually assaulted and murdered by her neighbor Jesse Timmendequas, a twice-convicted sex offender free on parole.
The incident prompted Governor Christine Todd Whitman to sign the first "Megan's Law," which requires community notification when convicted sexual offenders are released into a neighborhood.
When the federal Megan's Law was signed by President Bill Clinton in May 1996, it became applicable nationwide. The law has two components: States must register convicted pedophiles and must make information on them available to the public. The New Jersey version requires active community notification, which means that law enforcement officers must inform communities directly about sex offenders released into a neighborhood. The federal version requires only that the information be made public. A newspaper notice would be deemed sufficient.
In addition, if the offender is deemed to pose only a moderate risk, federal law requires merely that atrisk schools and community groups be identified; for high-risk offenders, however, the community must be informed. Every state has its own procedure for disclosing such information, but given the discrepancies in standards and notification, many critics claim that Megan's Law is not being enforced effectively.
The article below, detailing inadequate enforcement of Megan's Law and lax management of registered sex offenders in the state of Pennsylvania, was posted on the Washington Times web site in April 2004.
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On October 22, 1989, eleven-year-old Jacob Wetterling was kidnapped at gun-point by a suspected sex offender when he, along with his brother and a friend were returning to their Minnesota home from a convenience store. He has never been found.
Until 1989, law enforcement agencies in the United States did not have a comprehensive list of sex offenders. In 1994, the Jacob Wetterling Crimes Against Children and Sex Offender Registration Act, or the Wetterling Act, was passed (around the same time when New Jersey's Megan's Law was signed) making it mandatory for each state to establish an effective registration program for convicted sex offenders. Each state was also required to maintain a registry that included a list of pedophiles and others who committed crimes against children.
According to the Wetterling Act, however, the information was to be kept confidential. Law enforcement agencies could determine whether or not to make the information public at their discretion. Critics argue that a number of sex offenders escaped scrutiny because they were not considered dangerous enough, or the information was not released for fear of community unrest. The federal Megan's Law—an amendment to the Wetterling Act—allowed (but did not require) registry information to be disclosed for any permissible state purpose. Because the federal law does not mandate proactive notification, opponents believe the law's effectiveness is diminished.
In the years since the federal Megan's Law was passed, most states have established searchable sex offender databases. More often than not, however, it is the community's responsibility to obtain information about convicts released into their neighborhoods. Information in the state's registry, however, is often updated only when the offender personally notifies the registry of an address change. Law enforcement agencies cannot routinely inspect the activities of thousands of offenders under their jurisdiction. Consequently, parents, school authorities, and day care providers must read their state's sex offender registry to learn if an offender has moved into their neighborhoods. Criminal background checks, including a search of the sex offender registry, are essential before hiring anyone who would be working close to young children.
Media reports, such as the one above, claim that poor enforcement of Megan's Law fails to give parents and communities correct and timely notification about sex offenders in their vicinities. Advocates for better enforcement claim that the law should require active notification, instead of making the public check for such information. This can be done by direct mailings, door-to-door notifications, community meetings, notices in local media, information released to schools, youth organizations, churches, and day care centers.
KlaasKids Foundation. "Megan's Law by State" 〈http://www.klaaskids.org/pg-legmeg.htm〉 (accessed January 14, 2006).
New Jersey Law Network. " Megan's Law" 〈http://www.njlawnet.com/megan.html〉 (accessed January 14, 2006).
State of New Jersey. Office of the Attorney General. Department of Public Safety. New Jersey State Police. New Jersey Sex Offender Internet Registry. "Megan's Law" 〈http://www.nj.gov/njsp/info/reg_sexoffend.html〉 (accessed January 14, 2006).
Parents for Megan's Law. "Commonly Asked Questions: Megan's Law" 〈http://www.parentsformeganslaw.com/html/questions.lasso〉 (accessed January 14, 2006).