Megan's Law is a generic term for a statute providing for community notification of the whereabouts of convicted sex offenders following their release from prison. Such a statute is generally coupled with a law requiring the registration of released sex offenders. The girl whose name become synonymous with this legislation, seven-year-old Megan Kanka, was raped and killed in 1994 by Jesse Timmendequas, a twice-convicted sex offender who had moved in across the street from her home in suburban Hamilton, New Jersey. That Timmendequas had been diagnosed as a "repetitive-compulsive sexual offender" and incarcerated in New Jersey's treatment center for sex offenders at Avenel gave shape to the outrage provoked by his crime. If Americans still saw sex offenders as "sick," they no longer believed that experts could treat and rehabilitate them. That loss of faith diminished the concern with the childhood origins of sex offending, with how to prevent men from becoming offenders, that had emerged in the 1930s. Evidence that offenders had themselves been victims as children was in the 1990s increasingly dismissed as the "abuse excuse." If experts and courts could not protect children from sex offenders, then that task fell to the community, almost inevitably represented as composed of parents. This argument rested on the untested notion that if his neighbors had known about Timmendequas, they could have prevented his crime, and it involved a radical move to public participation in the task of surveillance previously given to police departments or other public agencies.
Campaigns for community notification laws relied on the political and symbolic power of the innocent child. Attaching the name and the image of a child victim, either Megan Kanka or a local child, to the law tapped emotions already aroused by a broader anxiety about the "disappearance" of a sheltered, innocent childhood, and made opposition, and even reflection, politically difficult. This was influenced in part by the widespread fear and alarm that had been increasingly attached to "stranger" ABDUCTIONS since the 1970s. Rallying around the innocent child, a grassroots movement succeeded in having community notification and/or sexoffender registration laws adopted by all fifty states, and by the federal government, by 2002.
Despite widespread adoption, Megan's laws remained highly controversial. Critics argued that the laws were punitive rather than regulatory, and therefore contravened constitutional protections against cruel and unusual punishment and ex post facto laws, as well as violating offenders' right to privacy. In practice, critics claimed, the laws encouraged vigilantism, and made the rehabilitation of offenders virtually impossible. Megan's laws were also charged with diverting attention from the majority of sex crimes, those committed within families. From that perspective, the laws were part of a backlash against the focus on INCEST and CHILD ABUSE that feminists had helped promote since the 1960s. In February 2002, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to decide whether Alaska's notification law amounted to extra punishment in violation of the Constitution's ban on ex post facto laws. The Court upheld the law in March 2003.
See also: Law, Children and the; Pedophilia; Sexuality.
Cole, Simon A. 2000. "From the Sexual Psychopath Statute to 'Megan's Law': Psychiatric Knowledge in the Diagnosis, Treatment, and Adjudication of Sex Criminals in New Jersey, 1949–1999." Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences 55: 292–314.
Davis, Peter. 1996. "The Sex Offender Next Door." The New York Times Magazine July 28: 20–27.
Jenkins, Philip. 1998. Moral Panic: Changing Concepts of the Child Molester in Modern America. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
Parents for Megan's Law. 2000. "Megan's Law Clearinghouse." Available from www.parentsformeganslaw.com.