Has Megan’s Law worked? Yes – N.J. families, neighborhoods are now safer

By Linda R. Greenstein
Asbury Park Press
May 2, 2010

It has been nearly 15 years since New Jersey lawmakers enacted one of the country’s first laws creating a registry of sex offenders and notifying the community of their presence.

With strong community support, the Legislature and Gov. Christine Todd Whitman created a system whereby residents would be made aware if a convicted sex offender lived in their neighborhood. Armed with this information, parents could keep a closer watch over their children. I believe the public has a right to know that a sex offender is living in the community so that parents can take precautionary measures. Registration and notification laws are fair because they are not intended to be punitive. Protecting children from sex offenders is a primary government interest. Registration can be used as a law enforcement tool to track possible offenders and to identify or eliminate suspects. There is a deterrent effect to an offender who knows he is being monitored, and victims express a sense of security when they know their abuser is being monitored.

Information has been presented time and again stating that rehabilitating sex offenders is extremely difficult and the temptation for recidivism is often easily triggered. It also is believed that these crimes are notoriously underreported. Incarceration can often serve as a wake-up call for those who commit robbery, assault or a first-time drug offense.

But studies have shown that some pedophiles have mental illnesses. This is the reason we civilly commit for extended periods of time those with serious mental defects who are likely to reoffend after their criminal time has been served. Our laws have consistently been updated to reflect our changing culture and address new threats to our children. We have expanded notification requirements and now utilize GPS technology to monitor daily whereabouts of offenders. We are considering residency requirements.

More recently, we have tackled the issue of pedophiles using the Internet to prey on children. When Megan’s Law was first passed, most homes were not wired for Internet service. There were no social networking sites like Facebook, MySpace or Twitter. Few parents needed to worry about a sexual predator interacting with their children online.

But e-mail, social networking sites and chat rooms now reach into our homes. Web-based mediums provide easy access for predators who would be blocked from interacting with children under the traditional parameters of Megan’s Law. As a result, I have sponsored legislation requiring certain sex offenders to submit to continual supervision of their e-mail and Internet-based communications in addition to unscheduled inspections of their computer. Supervising law enforcement should be able to monitor sex offenders to ensure that they aren’t using the Internet to prey on minors.

So the question is whether Megan’s Law has been successful. I believe that it has. The fear that the public would misuse this information and would often dispense vigilante justice has not materialized. Parents are able to monitor their children more closely and most would say they feel safer with this knowledge than without it. We have a responsibility to pass laws such as Megan’s Law to ensure that our families are safe and that our children can freely and Advertisement safely grow up in our neighborhoods and in our virtual communities.

Linda Greenstein, a Democrat, is deputy speaker of the state Assembly and chairwoman of the Assembly Judiciary Committee. She represents the 14th Legislative District, which includes parts of Middlesex and Mercer counties.

ABOUT MEGAN’S LAW

In October, it will be 15 years since a package of 11 bills called Megan’s Law was signed by New Jersey Gov. Christine Todd Whitman. It came in response to the rape and murder three months earlier of 7-year-old Megan Kanka of Hamilton by a man who lived across the street from her.

After the man’s arrest, Kanka’s parents learned that he had prior convictions for sex offenses involving children and he had shared the home with two other convicted sex offenders. Authorities knew where he and his roommates were living and had not notified the parents in the community of the danger. The Kanka family successfully fought to have local communities warned about sex offenders in their neighborhoods. A federal law modeled after Megan’s Law was passed in 1996.