On July 29, 1994, Megan Kanka, a 7 year old, was brutally raped and murdered by her neighbor in Hamilton, NJ. The community was not aware that their neighbor, Jesse Timmendequas, was actually a convicted sex offender in the state. Mr. Timmendequas was convicted of the heinous crime and is now serving a life sentence in state prison. The community was outraged and shocked over Megan Kanka brutal murder. Many in the community questioned the rationale behind the policy of allowing sex offenders being released into unsuspecting communities. By the end of the year, many called for a policy change that would require sex offenders to make their presence in their community known throughout the state of NJ. Megan's Law was soon signed into law by Governor Christine Whitman and many states followed suit.
Megan's Law was a landmark form of legislation. It incorporated the uses of punitive punishment, such as shaming, marking, and exclusion by requiring that all sex offenders register in an online registry to be made public to the country at large. Megan's law's main draw is its requirement that all convicted sex offenders are to register with police after their release from prison and even more so, are to notify the police if they move. Sex offenders are then placed onto an online registry that is operated by the NJ State Police. The registry lists offenders who have committed a sex related crime against an adult, molested a child or been found not guilty for reason of insanity. However, in extreme cases where an offender is classified as one of the more dangerous offenders, the entire community is notified. Most sex offenders that do not meet this criterion of being a sexual predator are just required to register information online under Megan's Law.
There has been much research conducted over the years that study the efficacy of "Megan's Law" and whether or not it indeed protects citizens or not. The steady decline of sex offenses in the state prior to and post Megan's Law proves that the decline cannot be solely attributed to Megan's Law. In fact, studies have shown that Megan's Law does not deter sex crimes or offenses nor reduce recidivism of sex offenders. The only certainty is that the policy is expensive to carry out. According to the Justice Policy Institute, "New Jersey's first-year outlay of $555,565 would vastly exceed the $516,071 it stands to lose in federal funds if it fails to implement current sex offender registry and notification laws." Therefore the costs for compliance of the law far offset the penalty for being out of compliance.
Currently, New Jersey is facing an $11 billion deficit on a $33 billion budget and Governor Christie is unable to make up the difference because of his campaign commitment to stop any increase in taxes. The result of his decision and campaign promise has been a long list of budget cuts. Examples of the budget cuts Christie has imposed are college tuition assistance and a substantial price increase on prescription drug fees for seniors. In such an economic downturn, many have asked whether compliance is justifiable, especially when the research has stated that Megan's Law does effect recidivism of sex offenses.
Most current forms of sex offender policies incorporate three important assumptions. First, sex offenders are much more likely to recidivate than other offenders. Therefore it makes logical sense for a notification system to be initiated as a way for the community to be especially aware of these high risk and often dangerous individuals. Secondly, surveillance can be achieved by sex offender registries that are to be made to the public to help protect communities from sex offender residents. Third, the offender is much more likely to be deterred if his or hers presence is known to the community. However, what these policies do not address is the stigma associated with being a registered sex offender, the harassment and quality of life issue when the sex offender's presence is known to the community, and finding a suitable location for sex offenders in communities that will not protest their residency.
A 2008 study conducted by Rutgers University and The New Jersey Department of Corrections, through a grant from the National Institute of Justice, found that "The cost for Megan's Law implementation during calendar year 2006 was estimated to be $1,557,978 per county, whereas implementation costs during calendar year 2007 totaled $3,973,932 for responding counties. This change represents a 155 % increase in ongoing expenses from calendar year 2006 to calendar year 2007." The study was able to safely assume that the sharp increase of expenses was likely attributed to the use of GPS monitoring for the most dangerous offenders as well as an overall increase in costs for surveillance.
The research on sex offender legislation and policy seems to have made no significant change to the number of rapes reported in the state. Most of the state showed no significant change in the average number of reported rapes before and after the sex offender laws. Of the counties that did experience statistically significant changes after the legislation, it was found that these counties had experienced a decrease in the number of rapes prior to Megan's Law and that the state itself was following a steady decline in sex offenses as a whole. The Rutgers University and New Jersey Department of Corrections study published in 2008 revealed that "Megan's Law" did nothing to reduce rates of recidivism among sex offenders, but the report notes that "New Jersey, as a whole, has experienced a consistent downward trend of sexual offense rates." As a result, the research convincingly indicates that sex offender registration and notification laws may actually have very little, if any, deterrence on rape or any other sex offenses
It is possible that this was classic example of "knee jerk legislation" that simply became more of a responsive and reactive measure to a public outcry than a sound form of legislation and good policy implementation. Public support played a major role in the timely passing of Megan's Law. The sex offender laws provided a notification system that would provide an effective resource for surveillance and regulation. Nevertheless, giving the public the resources and the means to effectively reduce sex offenses and deter offenders is a form of legislation that could be just as successful as it could be a failure. It requires that the public have an interest in proactively using the sex offender registry and becoming aware and vigilant of sex offenders
Louis B. Schlesinger, a John Jay College of Criminal Justice professor in New York City argued that, "treatment will not change an offender's sexual arousal pattern," but that it may help some offenders "gain control over their behavior." He is not alone in his theory of treatment for most sex offenders. According to Richard Tewskbury article, "Collateral Consequences of Sex Offender Registration, a significant minority of registered sexual offenders, no matter what their likelihood for recidivism, suffer from social stigmatization, loss of relationships, and verbal and physical assaults." Tewskbury also found that a majority of sex offenders experienced "negative consequences, such as exclusion from residences, threats and harassment, emotional harm to their family members, social exclusion by neighbors, and loss of employment." "The less stable someone is, it is more likely that they will commit an offense and not qualify to come off of Megan's list" says local public defense attorney Christopher Duffy.
Research has identified many factors that are related to an increase in the risk of sexual recidivism. (Hanson & Bussiere, 1998; Harris & Hanson, 2004) However, sex offender classification is solely dependent on one factor, the crime conviction.
For instance, a survey conducted in 1998 found that more than 60% of community members believed registration and notification encouraged sex offenders to behave better. In that same study, over 50% of respondents: had no change in leaving children with babysitter or unsupervised, were no less likely to go out alone, and exhibited no change in level of community involvement (Phillips, 1998). Another study found that almost 90% of respondents were aware of the registry. However, only 35% had accessed it and over 60% of community members report taking no preventative measures. The most common preventative measure taken was to pass the information along to children and neighbors. (Anderson & Sample, 2009) If the public is not proactive with its use of this information than it is not effective in protecting the community against sex offenders. Another research study found that over 94% of respondents are aware of the registry yet, only 37% had accessed it Families with young children were more likely to access it (59%). Sex offenders are found to live in 99% of zip codes. However, only 27% of respondents believed an offender lived in their community and of those who had accessed the registry, 51% believed an offender lived in their community. (Kernsmith, Comartin, Craun, & Kernsmith, 2009)
Only about 18% of child sexual abuse victims did not know their abuser (71% were acquainted/ knew by sight; 10% were family). For elementary and middle school age victims of child sexual abuse, only 5% were abused by a stranger. For victims of sexual abuse under the age of 6, only 3% of the offenses were committed by a stranger (Finkelhor, 2008; Greenfeld, 1997; Synder, 2000). The majority of sexual abuse and assault takes place at the hands of a family member.
Yet, the statistics show that rarely do you find a family member convicted of sexual assault and abuse. Therefore, Megan's Law is in fact, draining the resources that only a small segment of the population will be affected by. Because residence restrictions are designed to prevent recidivistic predatory offenses, they target only a fraction of sex crimes. The assumption that children are at great risk posed by sex offenders lurking in schoolyards or playgrounds is misleading and can create a false sense of security for parents. Most sexually abused children are victimized by someone they know and trust, and only about 7% of sex crimes against minors appear to be perpetrated by strangers (Bureau of Justice Statistics, 2002). About 40% of sexual assaults take place in a victim's own home, and 20% take place in the home of a friend, neighbor or relative (Bureau of Justice Statistics, 1997). Most child sexual abuse is perpetrated by family members or close acquaintances. Since the majority of sex offenders do not go on to be rearrested for new sex crimes (Bureau of Justice Statistics, 2003; Hanson & Bussiere, 1998; Hanson & Morton-Bourgon, 2005; Harris & Hanson, 2004), assessing risk and applying restrictive policies to those offenders most likely to pose a threat to children would be more efficient.
"Residence restrictions disrupt stability and create obstacles to successful community
reintegration. They tend to isolate offenders by pushing them into either rural areas or socially disorganized, economically deprived neighborhoods with fewer resources by which to facilitate crime-prevention strategies. (Mustaine, Tewksbury, & Stengel, 2006; Tewksbury & Mustaine, 2006; Zevitz, 2004;2006). They tend to isolate sex offenders from their supportive and dependent family members, move them farther away from employment opportunities and public transportation, and create financial hardship and psychosocial stress" (Levenson & Cotter, 2005; Levenson & Hern, 2006; Levenson, 2007). Young adult sex offenders are most at risk for housing instability (Levenson & Hern, 2006). These conditions are likely to exacerbate dynamic risk factors associated with re-offense, such as lifestyle instability, negative moods, and lack of social support (Hanson & Harris, 1998;2001)."
"Public policies that interfere with community re-entry are unlikely to be in the public's
best interest. Research indicates that sex offenders with positive support systems are less likely to reoffend and violate probation than those who have negative or no support." (Colorado Department of Public Safety, 2004). Stable employment and relationships with family and significant others are factors associated with lower recidivism rates among sex offenders (Kruttschnitt, Uggen, & Shelton, 2000). Social stigma and restrictive policies can preclude engagement in various prosocial roles and activities, including employment, education, parenting, and property ownership (Uggen, Manza, & Behrens, 2004). Employment and housing are essential in facilitating a smooth transition for sex offenders returning to the community after incarceration (Zevitz & Farkas, 2000). Uggen et al. (2004) emphasized that self-concept, civic participation, and social resources are related to criminal offenders' desistance from crime by virtue of their perceived identities as conforming and invested citizen."
Nationwide, 87% of all individuals arrested for sexual crimes had been not previously convicted of a sexual crime. In New York State, only 5% of all sexual crimes (and only 6% of all child molestations) were committed by individuals previously convicted of a sexual crime.(Greenfeld, 1997; Sandler, Freeman, & Socia, 2008)
The entire purpose of the Sexual Predator, "Megan's" Laws is to protect the public from sex offenders, who, according to the "compelling government interest" expressed in the statute, have a "high risk" of committing new sex offenses once released from prison.