The History of Megan’s Law

One of the biggest concerns for parents is the safety of their children. With a rise in sexual awareness amongst the youngest members of our society, coupled with the fact there are still deviants who prey on children, all parents live in fear that their child could be next. It is for this reason that we have certain laws, such as Megan’s Law in the US, and several others across the world. In this article, we will look at the history and impact this piece of legislation has had.

Megan’s Law is a federal law that was passed in 1996, inspired by the case of seven-year-old Megan Kanka, a New Jersey girl who was raped and killed by a known child molester who moved across the street from the family. The law authorizes local law enforcement agencies to notify the public about convicted sex offenders living, working or visiting their communities.

While the law was passed in New Jersey in 1994, it came into force across the US in 1996, when Congress passed Megan’s Law as an amendment to the Jacob Wetterling Crimes Against Children’s Act. It required every state to have a sex offender registry and a notification system for the public when a sex offender is released into their community. It also required that repeat sex offenders receive a life sentence in prison.

How Does it Work In Practice?

Different states have different procedures for making the required disclosures. Generally, the information that is included within the notification is the offender’s name, picture, address, incarceration date, and offence of conviction. The information is most often displayed on free public websites but can be distributed through newspapers, distributed in pamphlets, or through various other means.

The federal law was not the first on the books that addressed the issue of registering convicted sex offenders. As early as 1947, California had laws that required sex offenders to be registered. Since the passage of the federal law in May of 1996, all states have passed some form of Megan’s Law.

The Situation Prior to Megan’s Law

Before Megan’s Law, the Jacob Wetterling Act of 1994 required that each state maintain and develop a registry of sexual offenders and other offences related to crimes against children. However, the registry information was only made available to law enforcement and was not open to public viewing unless information about an individual became a matter of public safety.

The actual effectiveness of the law as a tool to protect the public was challenged by Richard and Maureen Kanka of Hamilton Township, Mercer County, New Jersey after their 7-year-old daughter, Megan Kanka, was abducted, raped and murdered. The culprit, Jessee Timmendequas was a repeat sex offender who had already been twice convicted for sex crimes against children when he moved into a home across the street from Megan. On July 27, 1994, he lured Megan into his house where he raped and murdered her, then left her body in a nearby park. The following day he confessed to the crime and led police to Megan’s body.

Timmendequas was sentenced to death, but on December 17, 2007, the death penalty was abolished by the New Jersey Legislature and his sentence was commuted to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

Megan’s parents stated during their testimony that had they known that their neighbour was a convicted sex offender, Megan would be alive today. The Kankas fought to change the law, wanting to make it mandatory that states notify the residents of a community when sex offenders are living in the community or move to the community.

Paul Kramer, a Republican Party politician who served four terms in the New Jersey General Assembly, sponsored the package of seven bills known as Megan’s Law in New Jersey General Assembly in 1994, with the bill being enacted in New Jersey 89 days after Megan was kidnapped, raped, and murdered.

Criticism of Megan’s Law

Opponents of Megan’s Law feel that it invites vigilante violence and reference cases like William Elliot who was shot and killed in his home by vigilante Stephen Marshall. Marshall located Elliot’s personal information on the Maine Sex Offender Registry website. William Elliot was required to register as a sex offender at the age of 20 after being convicted of having sex with his girlfriend who was just days away from turning 16 years old.

Reformist organizations have criticized the law because of the negative collateral effects on the family members of registered sex offenders. It also finds it unfair because it means that sex offenders are subjected to indefinite punishments.

What are your views on the matter? Do you feel that Megan’s Law serves a purpose in keeping our children safe, or is it a law that was enacted out of fear and without the proper level of thought? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

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