By Shana Rowan
The horror that Megan Kanka’s parents endured in the loss of their young daughter is unfathomable. Admirably, they are dedicating much of their lives to preventing what happened to Megan from happening to anyone else’s child. Unfortunately, their recent effort at modernizing Megan’s Law (“Kanka family seeks updates to exclude sexting between children, increase failure to register penalties,” April 15), ignores the research conducted on sex crimes since the initiation of the registry notification law named for their daughter.
Some of their proposals make sense, such as increasing the ratio of parole officers to registrants, as the entire community benefits from compliant sex offenders. It also makes sense to prevent teenagers from being put on the registry for “sexting.” But given that teenagers re-offend at lower rates than adults and show high receptivity to treatment, why limit this reform to “sexting”? The vast majority of juvenile offenders deserve a second chance, without the life sentence of the registry.
Human Rights Watch released the compelling report “Raised on the Registry,” last week, which exposes the far-reaching negative consequences of forcing juveniles to publicly register as sex offenders. Ranging from families forced to live apart, lifelong stigmatism for offenders convicted as pre-teens, inability to provide for their families due to lack of employment to self-harm and suicide in several cases, the ramifications of public registration for juveniles are extensive and severe. Any serious modernization of Megan’s Law must include a reassessment of placing juvenile offenders on the public registry.
Proposing that sex offenders who fail to register should receive automatic prison sentences violates the principle that a punishment should fit the crime. A 2010 report by the Minnesota Department of Corrections found no correlation between failure to register and sexual recidivism. Should this proposal become law, offenders could face a tougher sentence for missing a paperwork filing deadline than the original offense that put them on the registry in the first place, and New Jersey taxpayers will foot the bill for unnecessary incarceration. This money would be far better spent on prevention and public education initiatives to help parents become more aware of child sexual abuse which, in a vast majority of cases, is committed by someone the child knows — not a stranger on the registry.
As we approach the 20th anniversary of Megan’s Law next year, we at USA FAIR (Families Advocating an Intelligent Registry) share the Kankas’ goal that now would be a good time to reassess the registry and modernize it based on the extensive research we now have that did not exist in 1994.
In the aftermath of Megan’s murder, her parents declared on their foundation’s website that “Every parent should have the right to know if a dangerous sexual predator moves into their neighborhood.” Megan was tragically murdered by a depraved individual with a prior conviction for a violent sexual assault that involved the abduction of a child. Certainly, any parent should be alerted if such a predator moves into their neighborhood.
However, over the last two decades, the registry has morphed into the scarlet letter of the internet age, posting online information of former offenders who are neither violent nor predators and pose little risk of reoffending.
USA FAIR does not oppose the sex offender registry. We do, however, strongly believe that public notification should be applied only to the truly dangerous, because of the life destruction that can result from being so marked. As family members of registrants, we know this destruction all too well, as we frequently suffer the collateral damage of the registry, which can include the harassment of a registrant’s children, the loss of employment of a spouse and the break-up of families due to registry restrictions.
- We at Sex Offender Issues do not believe in any online registry for anybody. The registry needs to be taken offline and used by police. It's nothing more than an online hit-list for vigilantes now.
The good news, over the last 20 years, is that extensive studies contradict the myth of high sex-offender recidivism. Contrary to still widely held beliefs, sex offenders have one of the lowest re-offense rates in the criminal justice system. (These low rates existed both before and after Megan’s Law.) And we have learned that those low re-offense rates drop even further with years of offense-free tenure in the community and advancing age.
Further, we have identified which subsets of offenders do have a higher risk of reoffending, such as pedophiles with multiple child victims and sex offenders with other non-sexual crimes on their rap sheet.
Let’s modernize the public registry by making it smarter, by using the vast body of research to stay true to the Kankas’ founding principle of targeting the truly dangerous — while allowing the majority of former offenders to continue rebuilding their lives as good citizens and providers for their families.
Shana Rowan is executive director of USA Families Advocating an Intelligent Registry (usafair.org).
Monday, May 6, 2013
NJ - Opinion: Megan's Law registry has become 'scarlet letter of the internet age,' needs revision