Advocates for Children
College Park Scholars
University of Maryland at College Park
What would you do if you were notified that a sex offender had moved in across the street? Every person's opinion over this question varies. Although the majority of people would do what they can to avoid a sex offender, the issue of whether it is right or wrong to notify the community that a sex offender has established residence nearby, has been the center of many arguments. This issue is over the statute known as Megan's Law. Critics argue that Megan's Law violates the civil rights of prior sex offenders who have already served time for their crimes. As well as being a question of ethics, does the law truly stop sex offenders from committing crimes? Does the law give parents a false sense of security (Martens 1)? Critics also wonder whether there are possible better ways to stop sex offenders (Bernstein 2). Supporters argue that Megan's Law helps to reduce crimes and make communities a safer place to live (Jerome 3). It will also give parents a tool to aid in the protection of their child from sex offenders. Megan's Law might scare sex offenders from committing once again. Other supporters feel as though the law might give the family a better sense of security than before the law was enforced. The debates over Megan's Law are all strongly supported, I will concentrate on both sides of this issue using an open mind.
July 29, 1994, 7-year-old Megan Kanka, from Hamilton Township, N.J., was walking home after playing at a friends house. She had almost reached her front door when Jesse Timmendequas, 33, a landscaper who had lived across the street for about a year, invited her over to pet his new puppy. When the little girl followed him inside, he led her to an upstairs bedroom, strangled her unconscious with his belt, raped her and asphyxiated her to death with a plastic bag. Timmendequas then placed Megan's body in a toolbox, drove it in his pickup truck to a soccer field and dumped it in some bushes (Jerome 1). After the striking revelation that this crime could be committed anywhere, the New Jersey state legislation drew up Megan's Law. This mandates that authorities notify residents by distributing flyers, alerting local organizations, and door-to-door canvassing (Bernstein 1). Three months after Megan's death on October 1, 1994, the Governor of New Jersey, Christine Todd Whitman, signs into law an 11-bill package known as Megan's Law (Aseltine 1).
The strongest argument against Megan's Law is that the law is unethical and unconstitutional. "Why notification only about sex offenders-why not murderers and robbers," was a question asked by Phil Gutis, a spokesperson for the American Civil Liberties Union (Jerome 2). Other criminals are just as dangerous as sex offenders, why should only the sex offenders be subjected to this discrimination? Also, what about offenders who have long since paid for their crimes and had been successfully rehabilitated? Should they now be ousted after having been clean for years? While upholding the requirement that sex offenders register with police, U.S. Federal District Judge Nicholas Politan of Newark, N.J., ruled on February 28, 1995 that community notification is unconstitutional (Jerome 2). Although being blasted by those who favor Megan's Law, he maintained his reasons that it would prevent offenders who had served their time from ever returning "to a normal, private, law-abiding life". What this law does is brand certain people for life. People say that the law violates the ex post facto clauses of the state and federal constitutions, which forbids authorities to increase punishment after the fact (Mader 1). Some convicted sex offenders may never stop committing these horrible crimes, but some do (Martens 2). People who have paid their debt to society should at least be given the opportunity to lead productive, peaceful lives. This law makes all the offenders open to ridicule, discrimination or even vigilantism (Martens 2).
According to many, Megan's Law helps to reduce crimes and make communities a safer place to live. Feminist Linda Hirshman, a professor at Chicago-Kent School of Law, stated that notification can reduce the odds of being sexually assaulted (Bernstein 2). Megan's Law would also help to reduce crimes because the law might scare sex offenders from committing again. In the state of Washington since 1990, more than 8,000 released sex criminals, about 80% of the states total, have registered (the rest have either moved, died, or failed to comply) (Jerome 3). Seattle Police Detective Robert Schilling stated that because of the laws Washington is a much safer place (Jerome 3). "Community notification scares sex offenders to death," adds Detective Casey Johnson. Johnson, a member of the King County Police Department, stated, "Offenders call me all the time and ask where to go where there aren't notification laws," (Jerome 3).
Although Megan's Law does require the notification of child molesters, who is to say that it will truly convince those sex offenders to stop committing their sex crimes? Realistically, this law probably does very little to protect children from sexual abuse (Martens 2). "Does notification really achieve security?" asked ACLU spokesman, Gutis (Jerome 2). If it does, it is giving parents a false sense of security (Martens 2). An opponent to sex-offender notification laws, Robert Prentky, who is a sex offender researcher of Philadelphia's Joseph J. Peters Institute, say that the laws provide an erroneous shield against molesters (Bernstein 2). "If someone is destined to reoffend, it's obvious that all they will do is get in a car and drive to an adjoining community. If neighbors on the street know you, you can still reoffend in the next town or the next state," Prentky stated (Bernstein 2).
Opposing the belief that Megan's law gives people a false sense of security, is the family of Megan Kanka. Maureen and Richard Kanka put themselves in the public eye, enforcing the fact upon people that if they had known about Timmendequas already being convicted of child molestation, Megan would be alive today. Richard Kanka stated, "If I had known about his record, my daughter would be alive. I would never have allowed her to cross the street," (Jerome 1). The law gives parents a tool to aid in the protection of their child from sex offenders. Maureen Kanka said, "It won't save all the children-but it will save some. Awareness is the greatest tool that we as parents have," (Bernstein 2).
The critics of Megan's Law are not in favor of letting sex offenders off the hook, but would rather see other approaches in reducing sex crimes. John Q. La Fond, a professor at the Seattle University School of Law, characterizes the law as branding and says, "The best crime-prevention strategy is to re integrate the offenders into the community by helping them find jobs and become productive citizens. But that's impossible when there is angry hostility," (Jerome 3). Another critic who say notification is the wrong approach to take with sex offenders, is Jerome Miller. He treats both offenders and victims at Virginia's Augustus Institute and says that whereas notification leads to the isolation of sex offenders, "treatment necessitates a move toward better socialization," (Bernstein 2). Besides medical treatment, criminal justice experts point to the need for stricter sentencing. Offenders who commit forcible sexual assault serve on average less than four years in prison, according to psychology professor Nathanial Pallone (Bernstein 2). Prentky stresses the need for "intensive, possibly lifetime supervision for men who are considered to be dangerous, by supervisors with very small caseloads, who are trained to deal with sex offenders," (Bernstein 2).
Whether a supporter or a critic of Megan's Law, every person is entitled to there own opinion on the issue. Some argue that Megan's Law is unethical, others argue that the law gives a false sense of security and wonders if the law really prevents sex offenders from committing these hanous crimes, and almost all critics believe that there must be a better way to prevent sex crimes. Others debate that Megan's Law is ethical, there is most definitely a better sense of security especially because sex offenders get scared off by the law, and communities will become safer places to live. Although there are strong controversial debates over the law, a new law was signed on May 17, 1996 by President Clinton requiring states to adopt a system of notifying the public of the whereabouts of sex offenders by September 1997, but it leaves it up to states to establish their own form of notification (Mader 1). I remember to keep an openmind when discussing this issue- all people should think of both sides of the debate over Megan's Law before supporting one specific side.
Aseltine, Peter. "Megan's Law Upheld, With Limitations." Trenton Times 23 February 1995:A1: 1-6.
Bernstein, Andrea."Should You Be Told That Your Neighbor Is a Sex Offender?" Ms. Nov./Dec. 1995: 24-26.
Jerome, Richard. "Megan's Legacy." People 20 May 1995: 46-51.
Mader, Anthony. "Megan's Law." Trenton Times 18 May 1996.
Martens, Steven. "Law Gives Parents False Sense of Security."
Iowa State Daily 19 Oct. 1995.
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.