‘‘Megan’s law’’ is the popular term for provisions requiring selected criminal offenders to register with local law enforcement authorities and mandating that these agencies notify the community of the offenders’ presence. The first Megan’s law was passed in New Jersey in 1994 after Jesse Timmendequas, a convicted sex offender, raped and killed his neighbor, seven-year-old Megan Kanka. The story captured the interest of national media, igniting broad public outrage. New Jersey swiftly adopted a community notification statute. Other states and the federal government quickly followed suit. By 1999, every state had adopted some form of Megan’s Law.
Although they are typically cast as child-protection provisions, the actual scope of the statutes is somewhat different. Every state registration and community notification law covers all offenders convicted of serious sex crimes against adults or children and those convicted of crimes of violence against children. In some states, however, these laws include other serious violent offenses or less serious sexual offenses such as adult prostitution.
Notification procedures varied widely in the early years. While some states maintained offender data at local police stations, subject to review by community members, others distributed handbills, posted notices, and provided the information via the Internet. In recent years, states have increasingly utilized publicly available Web-based databases. In 2005, the federal government created a National Sex Offender Public Registry.
Megan’s laws are best seen as the product of ‘‘moral panic’’: intense public anxiety about a problem exceeding its actual scope. In fact, the sorts of cases embodied by the Kanka murder—child abduction and violence perpetrated by people who are not family members— are actually very rare. Nonetheless, the surge of public anxiety caused by media portrayals of the problem made Megan’s laws effectively unstoppable.
Critics of these provisions have offered a number of arguments against Megan’s laws, chief among them that they are ineffective and create a false sense of security for the public. Other criticisms include the argument that notification laws violate the constitutional protections against double jeopardy and ex post facto punishment; that they apply a permanent stigma to offenders that is morally unjustifiable and counterproductive; that they might spur vigilante justice against offenders; and that they have a racially disparate impact.
Defenders of the laws say that they provide a public service and are an important check against recidivism. They argue that the privacy rights of offenders are outweighed by the need for communities to defend themselves against serious crime. They also argue that sexual offenders have uniquely high recidivism rates and thus must be monitored more closely than other offenders.
Whatever their efficacy, Megan’s laws remain very popular. Public concern about sexual violence against children ebbs for periods, but the national media have found such cases to be highly engaging. When new crimes occur and receive broad public scrutiny, interest in Megan’s laws surges and legislators attempt to fashion new initiatives to expand their reach.
DANIEL M. FILLER
References and Further Reading
See also Rape; Sex and Criminal Justice