If you had the opportunity to prevent a child from being attacked, would you do it? I think all of us know the answer to that one. How you would prevent the attack is a tougher question. What if, in order to do so, you had to compromise someone's constitutional rights; would you still do it? That is a little bit harder to answer. These are some of the questions people are asking themselves when contemplating Megan's Law. An accused sex offender being able to move on with his life; the offender's right to have protection against vigilantism; and of course communities right to keep their children safe are just a few of the factors that must be considered when discussing this issue. Everyone is in consensus that something needs to be done to protect children, but not everyone agrees that Megan's Law is the answer. For some people the cause of this debate is over facts involving the recently proposed bill. For others it is in the second stasis of cause, or the possible outcome that such a law would lead to.
The entire debate was the result of a recently proposed bill. This bill was in response to the rape and murder of seven year old Megan Kanka in 1994. Jesse Timmendequas was a twice convicted sex offender who had just moved into Megan's neighborhood. Immediately following the rape, legislation amended the 1994 crime bill to include "Megan's Law." Megan's Law would require states to register and track convicted sex offenders and inform local police of the offenders; however, it did not require public notification. Megan's Law was approved and now in 1997 state legislatures are being asked to conform to these amendments or else risk losing federal anti-crime funding. There is a bill going through the Maryland state legislature, as well as other state governments now dealing with Megan's Law. House Bill 342 was first introduced on January 22, 1997. This bill would require child sexual offenders to register with the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services, as the federal law now requires. The identity of the offenders would only be released to a community organization, religious organization, any other organization that relates to children and youth. Also it may be released to any other person or organization that the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services feels may "serve to protect the public concerning a specific child sexual offender" (Dembrow 2). Also, the identity of the victims of the sexual offenders would be kept confidential. Most likely this bill will be passed by Maryland and the other states, but that does not mean that everyone agrees with it.
Some people disagree with the wording of the bill and think that it is unclear. "The bill requires offenders that are classified as high risk to register" (Department of Justice). The problem lies in how "high risk" is defined. There have been situations were police or correctional facilities have known that a convicted offender, about to be released, planned on committing more attacks. Earl Shriner was such an offender. Prior to his being released from prison, an official found out about a diary that Shriner had been keeping discussing future attacks. What is to be done with a person like this? Some people feel he should be detained longer; however, by law we can not detain someone past their sentenced time. Another option would be to give him psychiatric care, which would at the same time keep him detained. If he is released, law enforcement could track him twenty-four hours, seven days a week; however, I think this is most improbable. It seems to many that the only other option is to have community notification. As it turned out Earl Shriner was released and not long afterward raped a twelve year old boy. Would Earl Shriner be classified as high risk? Most likely if he was, this crime would have been prevented.
There are, however, some people who agree on the facts and definitions, but disagree in the second stasis, which is cause and effect. People doubt the effectiveness of the bill. Opposition to the bill feel that knowing the identities of child sexual offenders may not necessarily protect the community from other attack. "For the past five years, while Megan's Law has been in place there has been no difference in the number of rearrests" (Glazer 29). If the community was made aware of convicted sexual offenders, such as Jesse Timmendequas or Earl Shriner, who were moving into the neighborhood, would their crimes have been prevented? Only the offenders know the answer to that question and chances are they won't tell. This is difficult to prove because it is hard to track child sexual offenders. Many offenders are repeated offenders; however they may not repeat for twenty years or so and no one can track the offenders that long. Also one must consider how the implementation of this bill will affect the offenders. Many people feel that the offender's safety will be at risk if their identity is known to the public. "Since Megan's Law has been implemented in some states there have been fourteen incidents of vigilantism" (Brooks). One father and his son broke into a house and assaulted an assumed offender. People have different ideas on what the result of Megan's Law will be. As before since there is disagreement at the second stasis, cause and effect there can be no concordance on later stasis, even though there was agreement in the first stases.
It is hard to tell if the bill is the right action to take. Everyone agrees that something needs to be done to prevent sexual offences against children. "One course of action that could be preventative instead of Megan's Law is to have convicted child sexual offenders immediately placed into psychiatric care"(Glazer 31). Psychiatrists are trying to discern whether or not child sexual offenders can be treated. They feel that people who commit these types of crimes against children have serious problems that must be dealt with. Fred S.Berlin from the National Institute for Study Prevention and Treatment of Sexual Trauma in Baltimore feels "child sexual offenders have a psychological disorder that is controllable, but not treatable" (Glazer 31). Other people think that a chemical castration is the answer. What the best answer is, is yet to be determined.
Knowing all the facts behind the issue and its background will make determining one's position on the issue much easier. It is important to keep in mind where the discrepancy in the argument lies. That is, in what stasis is there conflict. For the most part it seems that disagreement with Megan's Law falls in the second stases, but also partially in the first. Now that the issue has been narrowed down to where the conflict actually exists one can decide where they stand on this question.
"U.S. Judge Gives Nod To Megan's Law." The National Law Journal. 15 July 1996: A8
"United States--Legislation." Facts on File. 23 May 1996: 357.
Glazer, Sarah. "Punishing Sex Offenders." CQ Researcher 12 Jan. 1996: 25
Brooks, Alexander. "Megan's Law: Constitutionality." Criminal Justice Ethics. Winter/Spring 1996: 56.
Wharton, Joseph. "Court Upholds Megan's Law." ABA Journal. Oct. 95: 36
"Megan's Law: Community notification for the Release of Sex Offenders." Criminal Justice Ethics. Summer/Fall 1996.
Delegates Dembrow and Doory. House Bill 342. Annapolis: Maryland State Legislation, 1997
"Pointing the Finger." The Economist. 15 March 1997: 27-28.
"Carrying Out Megan's Law." The New York Times. 26 January 1997: 12E
This paper was prepared in 1997 for a colloquium facilitated by Stephen Wright, instructor for the Advocates for Children program, part of the College Park Scholars community at the University of Maryland, College Park.