Study: Megan's Laws May Not Make Children Safer

A new study in New Jersey, home of the original Megan's Law which requires convicted sex offenders to register with authorities, finds no evidence they make children safer and questions whether the laws are worth the enormous cost.

For those who don't know a Megan's law from an Amber Alert or a Laci's or Jessica's law,

The 1994 law is named after Megan Kanka, a suburban Trenton girl who was raped and murdered by a convicted sex offender living across the street. It has been a model for dozens of state laws across the country.

The law requires sex criminals to report their whereabouts to law enforcement authorities, who must maintain a catalog of the offenders and notify residents when a high-risk offender moves nearby. The tracking and notification apparatus in New Jersey costs county and local governments millions of dollars.

As to the study, conducted by the New Jersey Department of Corrections and funded by the National Institute of Justice (the research arm of the Department of Justice),


The $38,252 study by the state Department of Corrections appears to be one of the nation's first attempts to analyze whether Megan's Laws make children safer from sex criminals.

While the study won't be complete in all its phases until next year,

One phase has ended. It charted sex offenses against children in the decade before 1994 and in the decade after. Researchers said they were surprised to find that a steady decline in sex crimes across New Jersey had begun in 1991 - three years before Megan's Law.

....Sex offenses against children have also declined since Megan's Law was enacted, but there has been no way to know whether that's because of the law.

In other words, sex offenses against children were already on the wane (you'd never know it from the cable news shows that feature them endlessly) and

Any number of factors could have led to the declines, [Lisa Jones of the Crimes Against Children Research Center]said. She cited economic prosperity during the 1990s; increased numbers of police, social workers and offenders in jail; and widespread introduction of antidepressant drugs in the late 1980s.

In addition to the states that have enacted Megan's Laws, the feds raced in to do the same. So now we have Megan's Laws galore and no evidence they work.

As to the costs, they are high. Here's one example:

To maintain the Internet registry, state police employ seven full-time civilians who earn between $35,000 and $52,000 a year, excluding benefits, according to state records.

Though the state orders local governments to monitor offenders' whereabouts and notify communities when a high-risk offender moves nearby, local and county taxpayers foot the bill, Assistant State Attorney General Jessica Oppenheim said.

Routine door-to-door notifications can cost thousands of dollars. Police in Voorhees, for example, said they had expected to spend about $3,000 to alert people in the sparsely populated Ashland development that a high-risk sex offender had moved in. The offender moved again before police started the notification.

If the offender lives in a high-rise, it costs even more. Some other examples:

Camden County, with 256 high-risk sex offenders, spends about $232,000 a year in salaries and benefits to administer Megan's Law, according to the Prosecutor's Office.

Essex County, home to 341 high-risk offenders, spends more than $1 million a year, said Paul Loriquet, spokesman for the Prosecutor's Office.

In New Jersey, it's the prosecutors' office that bears the cost.

Couldn't those funds be better used elsewhere? I think so.

I'm also skeptical of every law passed in the name of a singular crime victim. They tend to be based on passion, rather than reason.

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    of course they don't work (5.00 / 2) (#3)
    by cpinva on Sun May 06, 2007 at 11:26:40 PM EST
    geez, who cares? that was never the actual point to begin with. the real purpose all those laws serve is to show the voting public that, by god, their elected leaders are "doing something"!

    whether or not that "something" is effective is entirely beside the point.

    geez, where the heck have all you people been?

    Why, these conclusions are STUNNING! (5.00 / 1) (#7)
    by Pneumatikon on Mon May 07, 2007 at 09:33:13 AM EST
    When people have jobs and get the help they need they're less likely to hurt other people? We must recheck this data. As anyone ever heard of this kind of hogwash?

    label anyone? (5.00 / 2) (#9)
    by Sumner on Mon May 07, 2007 at 12:17:25 PM EST
    Tip-of-the-ice-berg of the whole story barely even begins to describe it.

    These "sex offender" registration laws came to be through a one-size-fits-all mentality of punishing the "group" for the "sins" of some individuals.

    The registry is constitutionally suspect and far worse than a mere "scarlet letter A" or Nazi Germany Star-of-David Jewish armband or badge.

    The Supreme Court has no liberals. They posture like they simply have to carry out the will of the Congress. But we know through the SCOTUS' disregard of the Religious Freedoms Restoration Act that they are simply authoritarians in nature. Raich showed the mythos of federalism being their guiding principal as well.

    Except for Lawrence v. Texas, Gays would also be on the Sex Offender Registration list, now. But in fairness to the court, they do have limited political capital. The religious right went ballistic re Lawrence and Pat Robertson led an assault on the court as "activist judges". Even President Bush joined in, although there is no similar ferver over the president using "signing statements", which as activism-intruding-onto-congressional-turf, amounts to the same thing.

    The "sex offender" registry laws were largely brought into play using the controlled media and the "Big Lie" technique. Mythical numbers of 3/4 million kids disappearing a year with 3/4 of them ending up dead in the first three hours were told. Claims that the average offender had molested some 400 hundred children before being caught were insisted as true.

    Claims that no offender is ever caught without being in possession of child pornography was erroneously insisted to be in 100% of the cases.

    Justice department grants sometimes ended up paying for campaigning for these laws. Video records of meetings on the topic show participants usually giddy and often show them with their upper lips curled up and with other displays of obvious sexual arousal as they discussed what they planned for "sex offenders", suggesting the mania of punishing "sex offenders" itself, to be an actual fetish.

    Wonder where Alberto Gonzales really spends his time? When not involved in promoting the fetish of torture or the death penalty, it is in pursuing and punishing people re sex. He undertook his mission when Senator Sam Brownback challenged Gonzales, during the AG's confirmation hearings, to join together with Brownback and their wives to attack sex and pornography.

    "I've made it a priority for the Justice Department to prosecute obscenity, child pornography, and sexual enticement cases", says Gonzales. He reminds us that President Bush has said that anyone who takes the "innocence of a child will be punished to the full extent of the law." Gonzales now claims it was President Bush that has "given me the charge of protecting our children from these profound evils".

    MSNBC seems to have a particular fetish for this. A specific example is where Dan Abrams had California legislators on his show and he repeatedly demanded that the lawmakers pledge to change the laws so that family members that committed any sexual transgression against one another, receive life imprisonment.

    Records show frequent erroneous assertions by lawmakers that "sex offenders" "have no rights" once an "offense" has been committed.

    This was a blantant declaration of "open season" on people whose entire humanity had been reduced to a single label. Claims were made that not a single person on the registry had ever been harassed or intimidated by anyone. In fact, some have already been hunted down and killed.

    The registry idea itself seems to be modeled after Radio Rwanda RTLM in order to pinpoint targets for attack in a similar massacre. A specific example of this is the case of right-wing radio host Rick Roberts on a local Fox News station representing that the sex registry was so that those listed could be hunted down and killed.

    In fact, hate crime laws purporting to protect people by their sexual orientation should protect people on the registry. But we know that they do not. The usually unspoken well understood instruction-set is that these people are the "others" and must be destroyed.

    Third-party applications of the Google Maps such as the Family Watchdog National Sex Offender Registry pop up red and purple squares marking homes and workplaces of registered "offenders". Clicking on a square brings up the "offender's" picture, full name, street address, and details of the "offense".

    "Demagoguery" is the emotional appeal to the prejudices of people. It works because people are made to feel superior to the group selected out as the "others". The promise of a utopia is often suggested once the others have been destroyed.

    there is a (1.00 / 1) (#11)
    by Deconstructionist on Mon May 07, 2007 at 06:24:39 PM EST
      MAJOR difference between labeling someone based on their personal conduct and because they happen to be born with a certain racial, ethnic or religious heritage.

      To call this worst than the Nazis displays such an appalling lack of perspective it is truly frightening.

      There are a multitude of legitimate arguments that can be made without stooping far below mere demagoguery.


    There's a reason. (none / 0) (#1)
    by Eternal Hope on Sun May 06, 2007 at 08:23:40 PM EST
    The right loves to talk tough about these criminals because they want to throw up a smokescreen so that people won't notice the behavior of people who are just as criminal as rapists -- such as corporate union-busting, flouting our environmental laws with impunity, the culture of corruption within the GOP, and the hiring of cheap labor and wage suppression in this country.

    Megan's Law (none / 0) (#2)
    by leahs on Sun May 06, 2007 at 11:22:54 PM EST
    Wouldn't this money be better spent on the education of our children especially since it does not make anyone any safer, but rather causes an unfounded hysteria if G-d forbid a sex offender moves into a neighborhood.  We have Megan's Law, Jessica's Law, the Adam Walsh Act, etc etc.  Attach a child's name to it and the public buys in.  Who will be the first politican to really stand up for children and tell the truth.  These laws do not work, but they eat up precious resources that can be used for the true benefit of our children.  Look to see who is benefiting from the hysteria being created, follow the money trail.  The politicans are being bought by law enforcement.  Bill O'Reilly and CA Governor Arnold Schwarzengger are both sex offenders that paid off their victims, but they both spout out about sex offenders and making children safer.  Look at Mark Foley.  He was busy writing legistlation to protect children while committing a sex crime with a minor himself.  These laws do nothing to protect our children, but they sure provide more law enforcement jobs.

    Is anyone following the very sad case (none / 0) (#4)
    by jpete on Sun May 06, 2007 at 11:35:03 PM EST
    of Madeleine McCann, a 3-4 year old English child abducted at a holiday camp in Portugal?

    (I think she turned 4 today.)

    Public notification (none / 0) (#5)
    by HK on Mon May 07, 2007 at 06:21:50 AM EST
    of the whereabouts of convicted paedophiles is a bad idea in so many ways; it creates hysteria, encourages vigilantes, prohibits those who have served their sentence from ever reintegrating into society, drives dangerous offenders underground and does nothing to make children safer.  Parental common sense, guidance and a sensible, responsible level of alertness on behalf of children would be much more effective.  Plough the money into education for parents and those who work with children and rehabilitative measures and treatment for those paedophiles who are realeased and everybody would be better off.

    In the UK last month the government made a decision to enact a version of Megan's Law called Sarah's Law (named after Sarah Payne who was murdered by a known paedophile in 2000).  Outrage was expressed by a number of high profile children's charities who stated that they were opposed to it and that they believed that it would put more children in danger.  The government thankfully backtracked at the last minute and modified the measures.  I still do not completely agree with what they have done.  Parents are permitted to request information about individuals who are left in the sole care of their children, but the information is not widely available to all.  The aim is to stop paedophiles who target single mothers to date in order to get to their children.  Other small measures are in place, such as police checks that can be requested by employers in respect of those who will be working with children.

    In the UK, Sarah's Law was backed by tabloids and so, I believe, produced pressure from the media on the goverment by a paper whose main aim was not to protect children but to sell more papers.

    I have been following the sad case of the abduction of Madeleine McCann.  Since police have a suspect in mind, I wonder if it is a known paedophile in this case.

    The effectiveness (none / 0) (#6)
    by Deconstructionist on Mon May 07, 2007 at 07:29:23 AM EST
      of registration and notification laws is certainly questionable. On the other hand it is also essentially unmeasurable. Statistics concerning total numbers of sexual offenses against children provide no real conclusory data relevant to the effectiveness of these or similar laws. In fact, beyond the anectdotal I have a hard time thinking of any data that could be used to measure the effectiveness of the laws and question whether to quantify the effectiveness through these sorts of studies is not the bigger waste of money.

       We also have to consider how many instances of prevention justify what amount of spending. Some people might consider one child spared to be worth a lot of spending even if that would be statistically insignificant.

       What we have  is what we hate to admit-- an insoluble problem that has incredibly devastating effects on the victims. It is human nature to attempt to do "something, anything" and we do need to be careful in restraining impulsive reactions that can have their own adverse consequences.

        While the mix definitely includes cynical politicians out to exploit the issue for political advantage, that's far from the entire story here.

    Exactly. (none / 0) (#8)
    by sarcastic unnamed one on Mon May 07, 2007 at 11:57:20 AM EST
    The effectiveness of registration and notification laws is certainly questionable. On the other hand it is also essentially unmeasurable.

    I don't get your point. (none / 0) (#12)
    by sarcastic unnamed one on Mon May 07, 2007 at 06:55:02 PM EST
    What difference does it make whether the RSO is someone who molested his 12 y/o niece or your 12 y/o niece?

    Many (most?) would still would like to know if he's now living anywhere near their 12 y/o niece.

    First (none / 0) (#19)
    by sarcastic unnamed one on Tue May 08, 2007 at 11:48:33 AM EST
    increasing general awareness of the facts is certainly a good idea and is not contradictory to also having other methods of prevention.

    Second, child molestation is not the only sex offense problem RSO websites attempt to address.

    Third, where is this big "perpetuating the myth of the molester as the 'other'" that you describe? Sounds like a classic straw man to me.

    From page 1 of CA's Megan's Law website:

    Most sex offenses are committed by family, friends or acquaintances of the victim. Be sure to click on the links to the left for more information on How to Protect Yourself and Your Family, Facts about Sex Offenders, Frequently Asked Questions, and Sex Offender Registration Requirements in California.
    My emph.

    The truth is also... (none / 0) (#14)
    by Deconstructionist on Tue May 08, 2007 at 07:10:02 AM EST
      ...that  one scenario being  more common than another does not make the less common scenario any less of a problem when it occurs.

      I tend to doubt very many victims or their families are less concerned after  an attack by a non-family member simply because they are told, "well, most of these things involve family members."

      If you get shot during a robbery would you feel better if some person totally lacking perspective and compassion told you said "gee that's a shame but you know most robbers use knives or clubs."

    That is true (none / 0) (#15)
    by HK on Tue May 08, 2007 at 07:31:13 AM EST
    but the fact remains that currently a disproportionate amount of effort and tax payer's money is being spent on ineffective attempts to prevent an unlikely scenario.  It is not that we should be unconcerned with paedophiles in the community, but rather that the problem of abuse within families is more prevalent and therefore it makes more sense to give that problem more attention.  Any efforts made to counter the problem of reoffending paedophiles should also be in areas that give more chance of success, such as making on-going treatment a condition of release instead of making their whereabouts known to the public; this would mean that the police and probation services could keep better track of them, instead of pushing them to the suburbs, poorer areas or - worst of all - off the radar altogether.

    It's a fact? (none / 0) (#18)
    by sarcastic unnamed one on Tue May 08, 2007 at 11:32:59 AM EST
    Or your opinion?
    the fact remains that currently a disproportionate amount of effort and tax payer's money is being spent on ineffective attempts

    no (none / 0) (#16)
    by Deconstructionist on Tue May 08, 2007 at 08:00:12 AM EST
     It happens all the time so it is obviously far from unlikely. It's also well established that recidivism among child sex offenders is high and that past behavior is a strong predictor of future behavior in this regard. It's also a saf fact that no treatment or counseling programs have proven very effective in preventing assaults on children.

      As I said this is one of those things we hate to admit exisst-- an insoluble problem with very grave consequences.

      That does compel policies based on fear -- or the exploitation of fear, but that should not cause us to deny the existence of a very real and very serious problem.

      We can't refelxively oppose everything-- no, we can't have draconian sentences to keep the locked in prison, no we can't involuntary civil commitment based on necessarily less than certain predictions they pose a danger to others, no we can't have public notification, no we can't have limits on where they may live no we can't have registration with the police....

      At a certain poin that becomes tantamount to: Tough luck kid, I don't care if you get molested. That's your problem. Some of us have to pay the price for the systerm not offending my sensibilities.  But, hey, both you and your assailant can get free counseling."

    the above (none / 0) (#17)
    by Deconstructionist on Tue May 08, 2007 at 08:01:45 AM EST
    was meant to respond to HK's # 15