It’s been 20 years since New Jersey’s Legislature passed Megan’s Law. The two decades since have been filled with legal challenges and disappointment it didn’t accomplish what many thought it would. It’s what happens when politics and emotion team to shortcut the legislative process.
The law is named for Megan Kanka, who was raped and killed in 1994 when she was 7 after being lured into the home of a twice-convicted sex offender, Jesse Timmendequas, who lived across the street from the child.
Her parents, Maureen and Richard, lobbied the Legislature for a law to require registration of sex offenders; it was named after their daughter. It went into effect just months after her horrible death.
Typical of legislation rushed through, New Jersey’s version has been much challenged. Other states and the federal government took their time and did it better. In New Jersey, there is a back story involving Republican Garabed “Chuck” Haytaian, who was Assembly speaker and wanted to replace Frank Lautenberg in the U.S. Senate. His colleagues saw the law as an opportunity.
In his campaign ads, Haytaian bragged he “fast-tracked Megan’s Law.” Both chambers of the Legislature were controlled by Republicans, and so was the Governor’s Office. They wanted to see Lautenberg, a Democrat, beaten. Haytaian came within 3 points of winning.
Emotion and political ambition are not a good combination for strong, effective legislation — the usual vetting and debate got lost. After its passage, it was tied up in court for years, a lot of it because of unforeseen problems. As much as we hate it, there is a reason the legislative process is slow and deliberate by design.
In 2009, a study by the state Department of Corrections and Rutgers University concluded Megan’s Law doesn’t deter sex offenders in New Jersey. The report says it makes it easier to find them because of registration, but you don’t need a report to tell us that. It also said the cost of carrying out the law — the report used $5.1 million, the cost in 2007 — may not be justified.