Sunday, 15 May 2011

Megan’s Law imperfect / But offender registry is a valuable tool

The chilling death of Chelsea King, allegedly at the hands of a previously convicted violent pedophile, has predictably sparked discussion of potential new statutes and analysis of existing predator laws.
The best known of the existing statutes is Megan’s Law, named for Megan Kanka, who was 7 when a convicted sex offender lured her into his New Jersey home, assaulted her and killed her in 1994.
Her parents expressed dismay that the twice-convicted predator had moved in across the street from their Hamilton Township home without them having any idea of his background. If they had, they said, they might have been able to keep Megan safe. Legislators in New Jersey and elsewhere agreed and one state after another passed versions of Megan’s Law, which requires released sex offenders to notify local law enforcement whenever they change addresses. Within two years, Congress passed a law requiring all states to establish registries.
California’s Megan’s Law Website, administered by the Attorney General’s Office, facilitates searches for sex offenders living in proximity to particular addresses, parks or schools. And, in most cases, it displays a photo of the offender, an address and lists the offense. More than 60000 offenders are on the registry.
Many Californians, especially parents, have long been aware of the site. Many of those who weren’t almost certainly have visited it in the wake of Chelsea’s death.
The consensus of experts seems to be that Megan’s Law, as well as other predator statutes, are imperfect attempts to protect children.
“Virtually every study done of the subject has concluded that Megan’s Law hasn’t reduced sex offenses,” Shaun Martin, a University of San Diego law professor, told the Union-Tribune’s Jeff McDonald. “So it’s pretty clear at this point that the law doesn’t reduce crime.”
And, it has been noted, offenders not under court supervision are free to move around even if they comply with registration requirements. Chelsea’s accused killer, John Albert Gardner III, for example, is registered at a Lake Elsinore address even though he reportedly was frequently at his parents’ home in Rancho Bernardo’s Westwood neighborhood.
Of course, neither Megan’s Law or any statute – short of a “one-strike” rule imposing life imprisonment for any sex offense – can guarantee that an offender who has served his sentence and been released will not strike again.
But Megan’s Law remains a valuable tool, allowing members of the community to become extra eyes for law enforcement and perhaps deterring some predators who know the community is watching them.
And it goes without saying that a parent who can easily learn if an offender lives near the family home – or near a neighborhood park or school, and can see a photograph of that offender – has a much better chance of protecting a child than would be the case without that information.
Absent a guarantee, Megan’s Law is a good law, providing parents and others just the type of information Richard and Maureen Kanka wish they could have had some 16 years ago when Jesse Timmendequas, Megan’s killer, moved in across the street.

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