Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Megan's Law: Shooting First, Asking Questions (13 Years) Later

In response to the horrendous and highly publicized murder of seven-year-old Megan Kanka by convicted sex offender and next-door neighbor Jesse Timmendeqaus, the New Jersey Legislature enacted the Registration and Community Notification Law on October 31, 1994. The law requires a person who has been convicted, adjudicated delinquent or found not guilty of reason of insanity for the commission of certain sex offenses to register with law enforcement authorities, and provides for community notification depending upon the degree of risk that these offenders will commit sexual crimes in the future.

Less than a year later, the Supreme Court of New Jersey in Doe v. Poritz upheld the law -- known universally as "Megan's Law" -- from numerous state and federal constitutional challenges. With several refinements, the Third Circuit subsequently sustained the constitutionality of the scheme in 1997.

Today, New Jersey's paper of record, The Star Ledger, reports that the Legislature is finally authorizing an independent of study of the law's implementation to be conducted by the Violence Institute (don't snicker). According to the story:

Lawmakers want to examine whether the groundbreaking New Jersey law that established a sex offender registry and rules for notifying communities about the presence of sex offenders is being applied uniformly.

Under a bill approved yesterday by a Senate committee, the study of Megan's Law would be conducted by the Violence Institute at the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey. It would examine how county prosecutors and courts determine how dangerous a convicted sex offender is and how much the public needs to know about that person.

"We should just evaluate it," said Sen. John Girgenti (D-Bergen), who co-sponsored the legislation. "There has been some criticism that it may not be applied uniformly throughout the state. I'd like to see how this program is evolving."

The bill (S2516) was approved unanimously yesterday by the Senate Law and Public Safety and Veterans' Affairs Committee and now goes to the full Senate for consideration.
It comes as the state Department of Corrections begins its own study of the law, named after 7-year-old Megan Kanka, who was raped and murdered in 1994 by Jesse Timmendequas, a twice-convicted sex offender who had done his time and was living across the street. Timmendequas is awaiting execution for the murder.

The department study, which began in October, is examining whether Megan's Law works as intended by looking at whether it is cost-effective, prison officials said. The department is doing the research in conjunction with Rutgers and Fairleigh Dickinson universities as part of a $38,252 federal grant.

Sen. Peter Inverso (R-Mercer), a sponsor of the original Megan's Law as well as the proposal to study it now, said the Violence Institute's study was not intended to see whether it works "but how to more consistently apply it," since "Megan's Law is here."

It comes as reports, including one issued in December by the state Administrative Office of the Courts, show that prosecutors and courts apply the law differently across the state. A Star-Ledger analysis, for instance, found that the percentage of registered sex offenders whose names are posted on the Web site varies greatly from county to county.

This approach -- enact first and then evaluate (and not, according to the article, to directly ascertain whether the law effectuates the Legislature's obvious goal of safeguarding children) -- is par for the course in New Jersey and, in fairness, most other states. I'll keep everyone posted on further developments.

1 comment:

Gritsforbreakfast said...

I have wondered whether it might be possible to call a moratorium on legislation named after picturesque little girls who were victimized by heinous crimes?

I've not seen one such law proposed in my adult lifetime that didn't ultimately prove to be reactionary and counterproductive.

Where is the bill named after a little boy or girl who is dyslexic and falls into a criminal path because s/he can't read?