Report: Megan's Law not effective

February 6, 2009 11:20:11 AM PST
A new federally funded study examining sex offenses in the state where Megan's Law was created concluded that the law hasn't deterred repeat offenses. The report released Thursday found that registering sex offenders in New Jersey makes it easier to find them when they are accused of crimes, but does little to alter the types of sex crimes committed or the number of victims. The study also suggests the costs associated with the laws may not be justified.

The study estimated the cost of implementing Megan's Law in New Jersey at around $555,000 in 1995. By 2007, the annual costs of maintaining the programs totaled around $4 million.

New Jersey was among the first states to enact laws requiring community notification and sex offender registration. The laws, now in all 50 states, are named for Megan Kanka, a 7-year-old New Jersey girl who was raped and killed in 1994 by a twice-convicted sex offender who lived near her home.

Megan's Law requires law enforcement agencies to notify the public about convicted sex offenders living in their communities.

When the most dangerous sex offenders move to a neighborhood, police go door to door to personally notify citizens and past victims. Those considered to have a lower risk of re-offending are listed on an Internet registry available to the public. The lowest risk offenders must register but aren't subject to notification laws.

Kanka's mother, Maureen Kanka, says the laws were never intended to alter the behavior of sex offenders.

"It was to provide an awareness to the public, which it has done," Kanka said Friday. "We never said it would stop them from going somewhere else and sexually abusing."

She added: "Would having that knowledge have made a difference for my daughter? Absolutely. She'd have been alive and well."

But Kristen Zgoba, one of the lead authors of the report and a research supervisor for the state Corrections Department, said that increased awareness alone doesn't result in safer communities.

"There's no other way to increase safety other than to decrease the likelihood of these crimes taking place," Zgoba said.

A public defender, Michael Buncher, said the money spent on Megan's Law would be better used for improved supervision of sex offenders and sex offender therapy in prisons.

The report is among only a few to use hard data to evaluate the effect of the laws on the crime rate. Recent studies in New York and Arkansas have come to similar conclusions. Other previous studies, however, have used mostly anecdotal evidence to support use of Megan's Laws.

The New Jersey study was conducted by the state Department of Corrections with help from Rutgers University. It was funded by the National Institute of Justice.

The authors found that New Jersey has seen an overall reduction in the number of sexual offenses since the early 1990s, but that reduction can't be directly associated with the passage of the notification laws in 1995.

Other factors may be at play. In 1998, New Jersey started civil commitments of sex offenders deemed the most likely to re-offend.

Those who treat sex abusers say registration and notification programs are helpful, but aren't comprehensive enough and don't help rehabilitate the offenders.

"There's a whole containment approach that means that people from a bunch of disciplines - probation and parole, sex offender treatment, victim advocacy and local law enforcement - are working to make sure they don't re-offend," said Alisa Klein of the Association for the Treatment of Sexual Abusers.

"Those types of programs seem to be the most effective way to ensure they don't re-offend, opposed to programs that monitor where they are or residence restrictions that a lot of states are investing money into now."

Some studies suggest that notification laws are counterproductive. A 1999 study noted that the fear of exposure may cause offenders to avoid treatment, and may encourage pedophiles to seek out children as a result of adult isolation.

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