2-7-2009 New Jersey:
Megan's Law, the landmark legislation that brought a new level of scrutiny to convicted sex offenders, has failed to deter sex crimes or reduce the number of victims since its passage 15 years ago, a new study concludes.
The federally funded study, conducted by the state Department of Corrections and Rutgers University and focused solely on New Jersey, suggests the growing cost of carrying out the law -- estimated at $5.1 million statewide in 2007 -- "may not be justifiable."
"Despite wide community support for these laws, there is little evidence to date, including this study, to support a claim that Megan's Law is effective in reducing either new first-time sex offenses or sexual re-offenses," the researchers wrote in a 44-page report.
The study is the latest in a string of efforts to measure the effectiveness of Megan's Law, which has been adopted in all 50 states and the District of Columbia. Those earlier studies also found the measure does not act as a deterrent.
Defense lawyers and civil libertarians, who have long opposed the law and who have fought in court to overturn it, seized on Friday's findings, calling on lawmakers to dismantle what has grown into an elaborate system for tracking sex offenders and notifying communities of their presence.
Megan's Law supporters pushed right back, calling the measure a vital tool for parents to protect their children.
State Sen. Bill Baroni (R-Mercer), said the study "completely misses the objective" of the law.
"Any attempt to use this study to weaken or erode Megan's Law will never succeed," he said.
The law is named for Megan Kanka, who was 7 when a neighbor lured her into his Hamilton Township home on July 29, 1994, raped and killed her. Residents of the block were unaware the neighbor, Jesse Timmendequas, was a convicted sex offender. Timmendequas is now serving life in prison
In an atmosphere of statewide outrage, Megan's Law was passed by year's end. It requires convicted sex offenders to register with police after their release from prison and to notify authorities if they move. In cases where an offender is deemed most dangerous, the entire community is notified.
By 2002, the names of sex offenders also had been entered in a searchable on-line registry operated by the State Police.
Megan's mother, Maureen Kanka, who pushed for the law's passage in New Jersey and other states, said in a telephone interview Friday that Megan's Law was working just as intended.
"The purpose of the law was to provide an awareness to parents," said Kanka, who still lives in Hamilton. "It was put there for parents to know where the offenders are living. It's doing what it was supposed to do. We never said it was going to stop them from reoffending or wandering to another town."
She said she was confident the law would not be repealed, and she dismissed the cost of carrying out the measure as "pennies" when placed in context with the billions of dollars the state spends every year.
"The law provides a service to the public," she said. "I am not concerned it will be taken away."
The study, funded by the National Institute of Justice, examined the cases of 550 sex offenders who were broken into two groups -- those released from prison before the passage of Megan's Law and those released afterward.
The researchers found no statistically significant difference between the groups in whether the offenders committed new sex crimes.
Among those released before the passage of Megan's Law, 10 percent were re-arrested on sex-crime charges. Among the other group, 7.6 percent were re-arrested for such crimes.
Similarly, the researchers found no significant difference in the number of victims of the two groups. Together, the offenders had 796 victims, ages 1 to 87. Most of the offenders had prior relationships with their new victims, and nearly half were family members. In just 16 percent of the cases, the offender was a stranger.
One complicating factor for the researchers is that sex crimes had started to decline even before the adoption of Megan's Law, making it difficult to pinpoint cause and effect. In addition, sex offenses vary from county to county, rising and falling from year to year.
Even so, the researchers noted an "accelerated" decline in sex offenses in the years after the law's passage.
"Although the initial decline cannot be attributed to Megan's Law, the continued decline may, in fact, be related in some way to registration and notification activities," the authors wrote. Elsewhere in the report, they noted that notification and increased surveillance of offenders "may have a general deterrent effect."
Whatever the report's caveats, those who oppose Megan's Law said the findings reinforce their beliefs that the measure fails to improve public safety even as it violates the rights of people who have served their time in prison.
"We now find that for the past 15 years we have left the public with a false sense of security," said Michael Buncher, who heads the Special Hearings Unit in the state Public Defender's Office. "Unfortunately, it appears that Megan's Law does not work. It's time to rethink the solution."
Deborah Jacobs, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey, called such laws "political Band-Aids that don't stay on."
"It's long overdue for the New Jersey Legislature to let go of what they consider the political value of 'tough on sex offenders first' and start focusing on helping the victims," she said. ..Source.. by Susan K. Livio/Statehouse Bureau