Megan’s Law does little to increase safety in US

The enactment of Megan’s Law in the US has proved problematic and has done little to increase safety, says Robert E Longo

In the US, convicted sex offenders and innocent citizens have suffered serious and negative consequences resulting from the implementation of the Jacob Wetterling Crimes Against Children and Sexually Violent Offender Registration Act 1994 (the Wetterling Act) and Megan’s Law, which was passed in 1996.

The Wetterling Act is a national law to protect children by requiring states to set up sex offender registers. It was named after Jacob Wetterling, who was kidnapped in October 1989, aged 11. He is still missing. As is the case with similar laws regarding sex offenders, this law was based on a single horrific crime perpetrated by an adult.

It also required states to establish stringent registration programmes for sex offenders. In the US, the number of registered sex offenders continues to increase. In April 1998 there were 263,166 registered, by February 2002 that number had grown to 386,112.

Sensationalised cases, such as the rape and murder of seven-year-old Megan Kanka, of New Jersey, have angered our society. Megan’s Law was a later sub-section to the Wetterling Act, requiring law enforcement agencies to release information about registered sex offenders deemed relevant to protecting the public.

Many recent legislative actions appear to be the result of emotional public response to violent crime rather than being based on research that these laws will make any difference in the frequency of a particular crime. Public notification of sex offender release is one example of what may be “feelgood legislation” that in the long run may result in consequences we will live to regret.

By increasing community awareness through these laws it is believed that parents will be able to inform their children about who is dangerous and who to avoid. The thinking is that public notification will reduce the likelihood that the offender will reoffend because everyone will know about him and it will be more difficult for him to lure a potential victim.

Public notification seems logical to its supporters. It gives the impression of being a workable solution to the child sexual abuse problem that will make people feel safer. If, however, one begins to closely examine this type of legislation, it becomes apparent that there are serious flaws in these laws and many possible negative consequences that must be considered.

Cost implications
There is mounting evidence suggesting that Megan’s Law is creating a variety of problems within states. Cost is one. Public notification requires continuous monitoring by public service agencies (police, courts, probation and parole agencies) to ensure that offenders comply.

All states have had to finance the costs of this mandated law (which did not come with funding for implementation). States face losing federal funding if they do not implement the law, but they do not have the resources to implement it properly. Many states report that the registered addresses are not updated and in many cases, incorrect addresses have been given. Many states post these on the internet, listing innocent people’s addresses as those of convicted sex offenders.

Another concern is the victimising of those who are not abusers. In New Jersey, an innocent man was beaten when angry people entered his home, having mistaken him as a sex offender.

But the consequences will be even more far-reaching. Some laws on public notification give entire communities and schools the right to know the identity of the offender. With consideration for the victim, what should we do when the case involves incest? How do we notify the public about the offender without also making the victim known?

In New Jersey, some incest victims now fear reporting their abuse because of public notification. If notification prevails, how fair is it for a child to go to school and hear others talk about his or her brother, father, grandfather, or female relatives, as a sexual offender?

Registration and notification is undermining treatment. The risk of offenders reoffending when they are under stress and unable to settle in the community is a well-established phenomenon recognised by those treating sexual abusers.

But there are many cases of released sex offenders being thrown out of housing or losing their jobs as a result of registration and notification. Some have never been able to find jobs or housing.

Most treatment specialists say sex offenders are suffering from a range of problems, including poor anger management skills, fear, lack of trust, low self-esteem, feelings of rejection, inadequate social skills, lack of empathy, isolation from others and poor communication skills.

They need help with these problems, and that happens when sex offenders have good community support systems and close ties in the community.

In one neighbourhood, a residential programme for juvenile sexual abusers had been operating for more than 10 years. As a result of registration and notification laws, citizens got together to have the programme moved, despite prior knowledge of its existence in their neighbourhood. Fear of what may happen in the future, versus looking at the absence of incidents in the past, created panic among residents.

Sexual offence cases are often weak in evidence, resulting in plea bargains to lesser offences. Registration and community notification laws give people charged with sex offences a greater motive to avoid prosecution and to plea-bargain their crimes to lesser, non-sexual crimes.

In some cases, social workers and child protection workers are reluctant to report cases involving juvenile sexual abusers to authorities out of concern that these young people will be subjected to sex offender registration and community notification laws.(1)

In these cases many are quietly and privately referring these young people to sex offender treatment specialists to get them treatment without the negative consequences of the law.

The best way to stop sexual abuse is to prevent it before it begins. Public notification laws are tertiary prevention efforts at best, and the antithesis of prevention at their worst. Most public health officials believe primary prevention is much less costly and more effective than tertiary prevention.

Public notification places responsibility for community safety and individual conduct on the community instead of the offender. Treatment is most effective when offenders are required to take responsibility for their behaviour.

Perception of safety
There is little published evidence that Megan’s Law or sex offender registration reduces child sexual abuse. Public notification is an easy solution to the highly emotive issue of sex offending.

The nature of the law implies that, by knowing where sex offenders live, one will feel safer. Safety is more than knowing. Some people feel more anxious knowing they now live near a convicted sex offender. Others cannot sell their homes when known sex offenders are living nearby.

And, as sex offender registration and public notification laws begin to identify an increasing number of offenders, these laws will create increasing levels of panic and possibly may begin to terrorise communities.

ROBERT E LONGO has specialised in the sexual abuse field in the US since 1978. He has worked with victims and juvenile and adult sex abusers in residential hospital, prison and community-based settings. He was co-founder and first president of the Association for the Treatment of Sexual Abusers.

Megan’s Law and accompanying legislation in the US have been developed to alert the public that they are living near a dangerous offender. The thinking is that, by increasing community awareness through these laws, parents will be able to inform their children about who is dangerous and it will reduce the likelihood of reoffending because everyone will know who the offender is and it will be more difficult to lure a victim. This article argues that there is no evidence that Megan’s Law is reducing child sexual abuse.

(1) R E Freeman-Longo, G T Blanchard, Sexual Abuse in America: Epidemic of the 21st Century, Safer Society Press, 1998

Further Information
Jacob Wetterling Foundation

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