In 1994, 7-year-old Kanka was raped and murdered by a man who had recently moved into her neighborhood. The man was a twice-convicted sex offender who had recently been released. Kanka’s parents, like the rest of their community, had no knowledge of this man’s background.
The resulting uproar led to the New Jersey Sexual Offender Act, which would become known as “Megan’s Law.” The act led to several laws that dictate release notification for sexual predators. Now, convicted sex offenders are required to register with their county’s sheriff department when they are released.
The first public notification law regarding sex offenders was actually put into place in 1990 in Washington. But it was the case of Kanka that brought widespread attention to the issue, and in 1996, President Clinton signed Megan’s Law. The law has two components that are required from all states: sex offender registration, and community notification.
All states are required to register convicted sex offenders when they are released from prison. Information collected, the timeframe for collection, the manner in which the community is notified, and other details vary from state to state. Some examples:
- Kentucky: All adult and juvenile felony sex offenders must register immediately upon release. Information collected includes social security number, date of birth, aliases, and description of crime committed. High-risk offenders must register permanently, and verify their address every 90 days. Anyone can view information on registered offenders through the state’s website, which is searchable by name, address, or zip code.
- New York: Anyone on probation, parole, or released for a sex crime must register immediately upon release, and ten days prior to a change of address. Information collected includes social security number, date of birth, description of crime, photograph, date of conviction, and Internet account information and screen names. High-risk offenders must verify their address every 90 days, all others annually. Information on high-risk offenders is published on the state’s website; information on all offenders, regardless of risk level, is available through a 900 number at $0.50 per call.
- Texas: All adults and juveniles convicted of a sex crime must register for at least ten years; crimes involving a minor require lifetime registration. In addition to the usual information collected, Texas collects fingerprints. Offenders must verify their address every 30 days, 90 days, or annually, depending on the severity of the crime. Community members can request information on offenders in writing; when the offense involves a child, notification is made to area newspapers.
While victim’s rights groups have by and large applauded the implementation of sex offender registries and notification programs, privacy and civil liberties groups have raised concerns about their potential down sides.
The American Civil Liberties Union has been vocal in their concern about sex offender registries, particularly those published on the internet. In an article released in April of 2002, the ACLU of Maryland raised serious concerns about that state’s sex offender website:
The Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services itself acknowledges that the address information provided by the registrants may well be inaccurate or outdated. These errors could jeopardize the safety of innocent persons who currently reside at those addresses, and at the same time lend a false sense of security to the public. Moreover, the Maryland registry provides no indication of how likely an individual is to commit another offense, and may further stigmatize ex-offenders who have rehabilitated themselves and who may pose no further risk to public safety … It is also important to note that most cases of sex abuse occur within families and the majority of sex offenders are not random strangers. Therefore, publishing the names and photos of these sex offenders often means revealing the identity of the victim as well.
The essay goes on to point out that many sex offenders are never apprehended, and continue to commit crimes and do damage. The implication is that efforts would be better spent pursuing those individuals, rather than attempting to track the movement of people who have served their sentence and are presumably rehabilitated.
In 1996, the organization complained about the Massachusetts registry program, comparing it to Hawthorne’s “The Scarlet Letter.” According to an article published by the ACLU in October of that year, the law has too broad a definition of “sex offender” – “mooning,” instances of public indecency, even urinating in public can land a citizen on the sex offender list.
"We had a guy who was changing his clothes in his car and he gets arrested. He pleads guilty because he just wants the whole thing to be over, and suddenly he's a sex offender," Roberts added. "The stories are just coming one after another. It's just incredible. I mean, you go back 15 years, you know these folks now have jobs, they have families, they live in the community, they're soccer coaches."
Links to More Information
Follow these links to learn more about sexual offender notification and sex offender registries.
From Yahoo, a list of regional sex offender registries.
Advocacy site for release notification; contains background information on Megan’s law and other related legal issues.
A list of state and regional sex offender registries.
The Center for Sex Offender Management, from the U.S. Department of Justice.
A collection of articles and information on sex offenders, registries, and other related topics.
From the American Civil Liberties Union, a report on a man erroneously listed on a sex offender.