By E.A. Barrera
March 3, 2010 (San Diego) --In the wake of the case of murdered Poway High school student Chelsea King and the arrest of convicted sex-offender John Gardner who lives in Lake Elsinore, the subject of “Megan’s Law” and what it is supposed to do is once again in the news.
The right of individuals to know if a registered sex offender is living in their area stems from the 1994 tragedy of Megan Kanka, a 7-year-old girl living in Hamilton Township, N.J. Megan was brutally raped and murdered by a neighbor who had been convicted twice of sexual crimes against young girls. The man was on parole at the time and nobody in the area was aware of his background.
In the aftermath of the horror, and sparked by outraged parents who wanted to know why such a man could live in anonymity next to young children, the New Jersey legislature quickly passed a law requiring police to notify residents that a high risk, convicted sex offender was living near them. It was coined “Megan’s Law” after the young victim.
Under Megan’s Law only the name, photo and vital statistics of the individuals deemed high risk will be made available. People won’t be given a list with the addresses of all registered sex offenders in the city limits. They will be able to look-up an individuals name to see if that person is listed, but that is all we will release.
Supporters of the law say it is a valid tool that can help police and parents protect children. In California, the Department of Justice in Sacramento has prepared a CD-ROM with the names of convicted sex offenders who must register with police. This information is provided to police agencies who have the discretion to decide which information will be released to the populace. To view the CD-ROM, one should contact their local police or sheriff’s department.
California enacted its own version of the law in 1996. The law says that the public has a right to know where all those convicted of sexual crimes are located. It requires police to notify residents when a high risk convicted sex offender moves into their neighborhood. Furthermore, all buyers of homes must be notified where they can access the Megan’s Law data base.
Two other areas of offense besides sexually related crimes require those convicted to register with police. Deemed psychological crimes, the other two are arson, and certain types of drug-related convictions.
In the case of arson, an offender must register for life, as with sex offenders. In the case of drug conviction, depending on the seriousness, one must register while on probation, and then for an additional five years after probation has been lifted.
However, violent crimes which do not involve sex, are not considered to be psychological crimes. Thus repeat offenders of non-sexual battery and other violent offenses are not required to register with police.
The reason for this has more to do with politics than public policy, according to Steve Allen, an attorney with the Center For Common Solutions. The CCS is an organization that assists victims of domestic violence and sexual battery.
“The legislature has probably never considered the issue of registering repeat non-sexual violent offenders,” says Allen. “There isn’t the type of advocacy and lobbying groups for non-sexual violence as there are for the other areas of crime.”
Arguments that Megan’s Law violates the U.S. Constitution’s Ex-Post-Facto rules of additional punishments for those who have already been sentenced, have met with deaf ears. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 3rd Circuit upheld Megan’s Law on Feb. 23, 1998.
The Court stated that Megan’s Law could not be considered additional punishment, because the state was imposing no restrictions on a person’s ability to live and work in a community, to move from place to place, to obtain a professional license or to secure governmental benefits.
According to Harvard Professor Laurence Tribe, the law gives practical effect to what is already theoretically in place.
“A sex offenders criminal record is available to the general public in courthouses. The point of the law is community protection and it does not violate the U.S. Constitution’s ex-post facto provisions,” Tribe said in a May 3, 1995 article for the New York Times.
Elizabeth Schroeder, former associate director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California said that at some point we have to have a notion that punishment is over.
"What these public notification laws do is place a big scarlet letter over someone's chest," said Schroeder during a 1999 interview. "The whole notion of rehabilitation has been lost in this country, particularly for sex offenders."
And the attorney for Megan Kanka’s family warns that no law can supplant the vigilance of parents and responsible adults to protect children.
“Pedophiles seek unwatched children. It is important that parents take responsibility about their children’s whereabouts,” said New York attorney Geoffrey S. Berman in 1994, who represented the family of Megan Kanka. “The danger of even the most stringent sexual offender laws are that they lull people into a false sense of security.”