Megan's Law

Author:Jeffrey Lehman, Shirelle Phelps
 
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Megan's Laws are named for Megan Kanka, a seven-year-old girl from New Jersey who was sexually assaulted and murdered in 1994 by a neighbor who, unknown to the victim's family, had been previously convicted for SEX OFFENSES against children. Megan's Laws are state and federal statutes that require convicted sex offenders to register with local police. Sex offenders are required to register with local police and to notify law enforcement authorities whenever they move to a new location. The statutes establish a notification process to provide information about sex offenders to law enforcement agencies and, when appropriate, to the public. The type of notification is based on an evaluation of the risk to the community from a particular offender.

The brutality of the crimes in the Megan Kanka case provided the impetus for laws that mandate registration of sex offenders and corresponding community notification. In 1994, Congress passed the Jacob Wetterling Crimes Against Children and Sexually Violent Offender Registration Act, Title 17, 108 Stat.2038, as amended, 42 U.S.C. § 14071. This precursor to a federal Megan's Law conditioned certain federal law enforcement funds on state adoption of sexoffender registration laws and set minimum standards for state programs. By 1996, every State, the District of Columbia, and the Federal Government had enacted some variation of Megan's Law.

Under the federal Megan's Law statute, states have discretion to establish criteria for disclosure, but they must make private and personal information on registered sex offenders available to the public. The premise of Megan's Law is that communities will be better able to protect their children if they are informed of the descriptions and whereabouts of high-risk sex offenders. Notification of sex-offender information to the community assists law enforcement in investigations, provides legal grounds to detain known sex offenders, may deter sex offenders from committing new offenses, and offers citizens information that they can use to protect their children.

Megan's Laws were not created without controversy. Opponents argue that the statutes encourage acts of VIGILANTISM and do not give offenders who have paid their dues the chance to merge back into society. But actions taken against the convicted sex offender, including VANDALISM of property, verbal or written threats, or actual physical violence against the offender, their family, or employer, could lead to arrest and prosecution for criminal acts. Despite these concerns, however, federal and state legislatures have continued to reinforce and broaden the scope of these statutes.

On May 17, 1996, federal efforts to strengthen the Jacob Wetterling Act got a boost when President BILL CLINTON signed an amendment to the...

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