Megan’s law, federally enacted in 1996, seeks to make information about convicted sex offenders public. The law was written and passed at the urging and advocacy of the parents of Megan Kanka, a seven year old from West Windsor Township, New Jersey. Megan was last seen on July 29, 1994, riding her bike in her neighborhood. She was lured by her neighbor into his house, and was sexually assaulted and murdered. Megan’s parents argued that they should have had the right to know that a convicted sex offender lived in their neighborhood. Having access to that knowledge would have allowed them, as well as other parents, to properly protect their children from predators. In 1996, the U.S. Congress passed Megan's Law as an amendment to the Jacob Wetterling Crimes Against Children's Act.
This law allows local police and other law enforcement agencies to notify the public about convicted sex offenders living, working or visiting their communities. It requires every US state have a sex offender registry, and a system for notifying the public when a sex offender is released into their community. It also mandates that repeat sex offenders receive a sentence of life in prison.
State-by-State Overview of Megan’s Law
Since the federal law was passed in 1996, all states have passed some form of Megan's Law. Before Megan's Law, the Jacob Wetterling Act of 1994 mandated that states must develop and maintain registries of convicted sexual offenders and those that have committed crimes against children. These registries were not available to the public, however, but only to law enforcement agencies. The information contained in the registry could be disclosed by those agencies if there was a specific concern, but people had no ability to conduct proactive research when deciding where to live or where to send their children to school.
There are differences from state to state in how Megan’s Law is carried out, but these variances are mostly minor. All states require that sex offender data is gathered into a publicly available database and require some form of community notification. The basic sex offender data requirements include the offender's name, address, picture, and the nature of their crime. States publish this information on available web domains, and residents can easily access the information. The community notifications can be done through the local police departments, local media publications, or even door-to-door visits.
There exist different levels of sex offenders. Levels help to quantify the severity of the crimes committed, as well as whether offenders have multiple occurrences of crimes on their records. Depending on state, offenses requiring registration range in their severity from public urination or adolescent sexual experimentation with peers, to violent sex offenses. In nearly all states, one must be convicted or plead guilty to the offence to be required to register – simply being accused is not enough to impose the requirement. In some states, the length of the registration timeframe is determined by the offense or risk level assessment, but there are others that mandate registration for the life of the offender. Some states allow offenders to be removed from the registry if they meet a specific criteria. Generally, data on juvenile offenders is withheld by law enforcement until their 18th birthday.
Some states and advocacy have gone before the Supreme Court to challenge the constitutionality of Megan’s Law, pointing out the breadth of offense severities, and arguing that the backlash the law exposes the offenders to is harmful. States with conservative governments tend to have stricter legislation related to Megan’s Law that do not allow for many exceptions and do not differentiate well between different types of crimes. More liberal states tend to do the opposite and write in various clauses that can help filter out the non-violent or young one-time offenders.
It has also been argued by some states that the law creates an unrealistic administrative burden to the states. In some cases, offenders need to re-register multiple times per year, and public agencies are tasked with validating and verifying the accuracy of the registrations.
Many Federal court cases have been brought forth that challenge the state laws related to Megan’s Law, some achieving victory and resulting in state law modifications. A newer related law, however, known as the Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act, expanded and reclassified crimes requiring sex offender registration that was applied retroactively. It added an estimated 2,000 individuals to the sex offender registry and for roughly 4,500 ex-offenders.
It is clear that Megan’s Law has had a sweeping effect on state laws pertaining to sex offender information and keeping children safe. Its complexity and implications are vast, and it is likely that this landscape will continue to shift, both at the Federal and State level.