Dealing with Sex Offenders
Dealing with Sex Offenders
Date: August 15, 1994
Source: New York Times
About the Author: The New York Times is a daily newspaper, published in New York City since September 18, 1851.
On July 29, 1994, seven-year-old Megan Nicole Kanka was sexually assaulted and murdered by Jesse Timmendequas, a convicted sex offender who had previously served seven years for sexual assault against children. Unbeknownst to community members, Timmendequas had taken up residence in the New Jersey suburb where Megan Kanka lived with her family. Megan was lured into Timmendequas's house, across the street from her home, with promises of seeing his puppy, but instead became the victim of a terrible crime.
Community outrage in the wake of Megan's death resulted in efforts to increase community safety and to ensure that this would not happen again, but Megan's murder was certainly not the first of its kind to bring about calls for legislative reform. Five years earlier, a seven-year-old boy in Tacoma, Washington was abducted, sexually assaulted, mutilated, and left for dead by convicted sex offender Earl Shriner. This incident led to the creation of a special task force to create regulations for dangerous sex offenders. The resulting legislation was the Washington Community Protection Act, which included provisions for post-sentence civil commitment of sexually violent predators, a sex offender registry, and a system of tiered notification of criminal justice officials, community groups, and community members upon the release of a sex offender, depending on his risk level. In the case of a very high risk offender, individuals living around the offender's intended place of residence would be notified and provided with his name, address, and other pertinent information.
In 1994 congress passed the Jacob Wetterling Act, named in memory of an eleven-year-old boy who was abducted in Minnesota in October 1989 and never seen again. The Jacob Wetterling Act required each state to create a registry system to record and track the whereabouts of released sex offenders. States found to be in noncompliance with this legislation would face a 10 percent reduction in criminal justice funding from the federal government. In the same year, Indiana passed Zachary's Law (named for another child murder victim), creating the first online sex offender registry, with information accessible to the public. In all of these cases, victim advocacy groups and public outcry drove the impetus for legislative change, pushing politicians to react swiftly with sweeping reforms to address public fear and concern.
DEALING WITH SEX OFFENDERS
August 15, 1994
It was a genuine tragedy when 33-year-old Jesse Timmendequas talked 7-year-old Megan Kanka into entering his house in Hamilton Township, N.J., one day last month. Mr. Timmendequas had been convicted twice for sexually assaulting young girls, and had served six years in a facility for sex offenders. Once Megan was in the house he strangled her to death and raped her.
Small wonder that the angry residents of Megan's town and much of New Jersey's political leadership want to crack down on sex offenders who have served their time in jail and been released back into the community. Proposals range from requiring released sex offenders to register with the police departments of the towns they settle in, to requiring that they report their whereabouts every 30 days, to making them spend the rest of their lives in prison unless they can convince officials that they have been rehabilitated. Under one proposal, the police would be alerted and asked to notify neighborhood residents of a sex offender's presence.
The Speaker of the New York Assembly, Sheldon Silver, also plans to introduce a bill calling for community notification; Gov. Mario Cuomo has said he would press for such a law.
Those who would impose new stringencies on sex offenders are speaking for millions of Americans. But some proposals could do more harm than good—by triggering outbreaks of vigilantism or by destroying the efforts of thousands of law-abiding former sex offenders to rebuild their lives.
Proposals to notify communities of the sex offenders in their midst seem particularly problematic. Why, for instance, should a sex offender be branded when a released drug dealer, armed robber or murderer is not? Some argue that recidivism among sex offenders is so high that "better safe than sorry" should be the rule. But careful studies of sex offenders after release have found that most do not repeat their crimes. Treatment experts claim that recidivism rates are not only exaggerated but depend on a range of factors, including the nature of the crime and whether the offender received treatment. Although several therapies have been shown to lower recidivism rates, the vast majority of jailed sex offenders get no help at all.
Community notification laws do little or nothing to prevent a sex offender from striking again; they simply make it more likely that the offender will be hounded from one town to another. Indeed, sex offenders might actually become more dangerous if driven from communities where family and friends help control their behavior.
The danger of vigilantism is real. A community notification system in the state of Washington, under which the police can, at their discretion, inform anyone from county officials to local newspapers of a released sex offender's presence, has resulted in arson that destroyed a sex offender's house, death threats, assaults, slashed tires and loss of employment and housing.
So how, then, to craft a system that will protect a community from those against whom it must be protected without stigmatizing those from whom it need not be? Carefully, that is how, and without hysteria. Keeping communities safe should be primarily a matter for the police and the criminal justice system, not for a frightened citizenry.
Registration programs that help police keep track of released sex offenders may well have a place in a careful police program, under court supervision that assures procedures meet constitutional safeguards. After all, police professionals already swap information about the whereabouts of many released criminals. But dissemination of the information can only inflame passions.
Penalties for preying on children can be toughened, as they were last week in New Jersey; and juvenile offenders need early counseling and treatment. Those who have spoken for the Megans of this world are speaking from the heart. Now it is time for Americans to use their heads as well.
On October 31, 1994, a mere 95 days after the sexual assault and murder of Megan Kanka, the New Jersey state legislature passed Megan's Law. The legislation, based on the earlier, federal Jacob Wetterling Law provided for the registration and tracking of released sexual offenders, but the controversial centerpiece of the new law was a sweeping set of provisions for community notification. Community members, neighbors, and schools were to be informed of the presence of a high-risk offender in their neighborhood. The legislation made intuitive sense to concerned parents and community members who were searching for a means of protecting children from victimization and was vigorously supported by a petition of over 400,000 community members. The pressure to act from Megan Kanka's parents, victim advocacy groups, and the public was instrumental in pushing the bill through the state legislature in record time. Megan's Law was passed so quickly, in fact, that its implications were not carefully considered by policy makers.
While a judiciously used sex offender registry can be a valuable tool for police investigations, criminologists and criminal justice professionals have questioned the wisdom of blanket community notification policies. The use of community notification in communities has led to increased vigilantism, including harassment and even physical assault against registered sex offenders; occasionally innocent persons have been mistaken for registered sex offenders and harassed or assaulted. The fear, isolation, stigma, and stress that results from the offender's notoriety in the community may, ironically, serve to increase his risk of reoffense and put the community at greater danger than if only the police were aware of his presence. Some offenders have been forced to move away from communities that would not tolerate their presence, and offenders forced out of a community by animosity may choose not to comply with registry requirements to update their addresses, in effect going underground to avoid their identities being revealed once again. As a result, many states who use community notification have high rates of noncompliance with sex offender registries, making the databases significantly less effective and putting the community at greater risk.
In 1996 Congress amended the Jacob Wetterling Act to create a federal Megan's Law statute that requires all states to employ community notification in accordance with a federal standard. At the same time, the Pam Lyncher Act created a national sex offender registry, administered by the FBI, and required the lifetime registration of all offenders who had engaged in coercive, penetrative sex or had victims under the age of twelve. Currently all states utilize some form of sex offender registry and community notification.
About half of the states use a three-tiered approach to notification that takes into account the offender's risk level. The first tier is the lowest risk and registry information on tier one offenders is provided to law enforcement officials only. The second tier presents a moderate level of risk and the names, addresses, photographs, and relevant information are provided to schools, daycare centers, and community groups or agencies that are likely to encounter the individual. The third tier is considered high risk and information about the individual is provided door-to-door throughout the neighborhood of residence; in some states it may be posted on an internet database. The states that do not use a three-tiered approach have a blanket policy on community notification and information about all registered sex offenders is made public through the use of media and internet databases.
Beyond the role stress plays in precipitating a relapse and the potential for vigilante violence, community notification appears to be an attempt at a quick fix to sexual offending. The law promotes the notion that if one knows where sex offenders live then one will be safe. Counterintuitive to this is the fact that the vast majority of sexual assaults are committed by a person known to the victim. Intrafamilial sexual abuse is far more common than the "stranger danger" that sex offender registries and community notification policies target. An overreliance on these types of solutions perpetuates a false sense of security and does nothing to protect and bring awareness to the thousands of children who are abused each day by people that they trust.
Megan's Law continues to draw firm support from politicians and the public, despite general expert agreement on the potential for negative consequences from community notification. As recently as 2002 a constitutional challenge to the legislation on the basis that it violates the offenders' right to privacy failed and the law was subsequently upheld by the United States Supreme Court, suggesting that it is here to stay.
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