It is our opinion that the sex offender registry is not needed at all, in any form, but, if we must have one, it should be taken offline and used by police only. It's nothing more than a phone book for vigilantes to hunt down and harass, or worse, ex-sex offenders, their families and children.
By Mike Davis
HAMILTON - Terry Peifer lives less than a mile from the neighborhood where 7-year-old Megan Kanka was killed by convicted sex offender Jesse Timmendequas.
But when Peifer looks at Megan’s Law, which created a public registry of sex offenders to warn parents about dangerous criminals in their neighborhood, she has a different perspective.
“I am a mother of a victim and a mother of someone who was accused. I see both sides of the story,” Peifer said. “I see it through the victim’s eyes and I see it through the eyes of someone who was accused in a similar situation.”
Peifer runs New Jersey Families Advocating for Intelligent Reform (FAIR), a nonprofit that advocates reforming Megan’s Law and acts as a support group for reformed sex offenders and their families who face difficulties in everyday society.
“I would never want anything horrible to happen, like the horrendous crimes suffered by the Smarts and the Kankas,” Peifer said, referring to Elizabeth Smart, who was 14 when she was abducted from her Salt Lake City home in 2002 and held captive for nine months.
“But they’re the exception to the rule,” Peifer said. “Jesse Timmendequas was a two-time offender and wasn’t being monitored properly.”
Last month, state Senate President Stephen Sweeney, along with Sens. Linda Greenstein (D-Plainsboro) and Kevin O’Toole (R-Cedar Grove) introduced a bill aimed at “modernizing” Megan’s Law.
The bill proposes hiring more parole officers to monitor sex offenders, upgrading penalties for sex crimes involving victims with disabilities, requiring sex offenders under lifetime supervision to pay a $30 monthly penalty and fold in any sex offender under lifetime “community supervision” into “parole supervision,” where another offense can mean automatic punishment.
Shana Rowan (Blog), executive director of USA Families Advocating an Intelligent Registry (unrelated to Peifer’s organization), said the sex offender registry has lost its original purpose since the New Jersey Legislature enacted Megan’s Law in 1994.
“The initial idea of a registry was not a bad one, but unfortunately it has expanded exponentially. Now, there are hundreds of crimes that are considered registrable in various states,” Rowan said. “It’s no longer a safety tool, where people can look and say ‘These people might be dangerous to my kids.’”
“Offenders need to be held accountable, but it gets to a point where, once somebody has served their time and is back out into the community, a lot of these laws are set up to make them fail,” she said.
USA FAIR isn’t against the registry itself. Instead, Rowan advocates for a more “intelligent” database based on “individualized risk assessment,” taking into account the nature of each offender’s crime, personality and risk of recidivism.
“We need to get away from the broad brush approach, treating everybody as if they are the worst of the worse and are going to go out and rape and murder children,” Rowan said. “We have to look at the research between different subtypes of offenders that have very different recidivism rates.”
Lowering recidivism — the chance that a sex offender will commit another offense after release from prison — is the ultimate goal of Megan’s Law, Rowan said. If families are aware of a sex offender in their neighborhood — or local laws prohibit sex offenders from living there — they can take action to keep their children safe, she said.
But 95 percent of sex crimes are committed by first-time offenders who wouldn’t be listed on the registry in the first place, Rowan said.
A 2003 U.S. Department of Justice study of nearly 10,000 sex offenders released since 1994 showed that only about 5 percent were arrested within three years and only 3 percent were convicted.
“It’s a very large, expensive, all-encompassing system that produces what are really not good results,” Rowan said of Megan’s Law. “Making these laws tougher, without looking to see what’s happening, is just going to make things worse. It’s going to cost people more money on something that really isn’t going to help and sex crime recidivism is going to stay the same.”
Being placed on a sex offender registry means more than unemployment or public persecution for offenders, Rowan said. Children of sex offenders are often subject to bullying and ridicule from peers and families are forced to relocate if they intend to have a sex offender move back home after incarceration.
“It’s really not just about the offenders. It’s really about the families,” Rowan said. “It can make it impossible to have a normal childhood, it can take away opportunities for education and it really puts children at a heightened risk for danger.”
Peifer outlined a case where a registered sex offender was unable to sponsor his wife to allow her to immigrate to the United States because of his status.
“They’re married. And if we really want to keep our communities safe, part of that is family support,” Peifer said.
Registration and address update requirements often vary between states and municipalities, confusing both sex offenders and even law enforcement officers, Rowan said.
“It’s portrayed as ‘sex offender on the run,’ but it’s not as though these are violent crimes being committed,” Rowan said. “They’re administrative crimes.”
“Of course, there are people who abuse that system, and it is a responsibility of people who are on the registry to make sure they do those things.”
“But to say they’re not updating their information because they’re going to get more victims is often a genuine mistake,” she said.