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Departments : Point of Law

Protecting the Innocent

Issues surrounding "Megan's Law" are still hotly debated.

February 01, 1999  |  by Jane M. Tucker

Nothing in recent history has compelled such emotional debate and constitutional controversy as the so-called Megan's Law. These laws require registration and community notification when a convicted sex offender moves into a neighborhood. The law varies in degrees of notification from state to state. Designed to protect children from manipulative and violent sex offenders, these laws have become involved in a controversy concerning possible constitutional rights violations.

Most of the legislation requiring community notification has been the result of the highly publicized murder of 7-year old Megan Kanka in 1994. Megan was murdered by her neighbor, Jesse Timmendequas, a twice convicted sex offender. Timmendequas, now on death row in New Jersey, admitted to luring the child to his house by telling her he had a puppy. He then raped and suffocated her. Megan's parents were shocked to learn that Timmendequas and his two roommates were released sex offenders. This spearheaded their national campaign to require the judicial system to notify communities of a dangerous sex offender's release and place of residence within a community. Since Megan's death, 49 states have adopted registration statues (Glassner, 1997).

Sex offenders affected by Megan's Law have filed court actions stating that this legislation is unconstitutional. In specific, they believe that the registration and community notification laws violate the due process, double jeopardy, privacy, cruel and unusual punishment, and ex-post facto issue in the U.S. Constitution.

In May of 1997, President Clinton signed "The Jacob Wetterling Crimes Against Children and Violent Offender Registration Act," a national form of Megan's Law. This act requires states to enact legislation requiring sex offender registration and notification in order to qualify for federal anti-crime funding.

Compelling Arguments For Legislation

Proponents of community notification base their stand on the high recidivism rates and low rehabilitation successes for sexual offenders. The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) publishes an informational manual titled Child Molesters Who Abduct. The information shows that child molesters have a tendency to recidivate. Three of the five case studies contained in the manual show that the offenders committed sexual offenses against 30 or more children after the arrest for the first sexual offense against a child. Each one of the five offenders studied showed an increase in frequent and violence of offense after being arrested and released back into the public. Those who favor community notification base their reasoning on protecting children from such threats.

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