February 5, 2009

Megan’s Law: Millions for nothing

You all know about "Megan's Laws." They are named after Megan Kanka, a 7-year-old girl from "America's favorite hometown" of Hamilton, New Jersey, who was raped and murdered by her neighbor, a released sex offender named Jesse Timmendequas, on July 29, 1994.

Capitalizing on the fear this crime engendered, legislators proved themselves tough on crime by enacting Megan's Laws in all 50 U.S. states. The laws are designed to protect the public by mandating that convicted sex offenders register with local police and that police agencies keep the public informed about the whereabouts of these offenders.

But do the laws really protect the public?

Despite their enormous popularity, little research has been conducted into whether they work.

Now, a federally funded study of New Jersey's law has found the following dramatic effects:
  • Effects on sex offender recidivism: NONE
  • Effects on time to first re-arrest: NONE
  • Effects on number of victims: NONE
  • Effects on state budget: $3.9 million-plus (as of 2007)
The bottom-line conclusion?

"Given the lack of demonstrated effect of Megan's Law on sexual offenses, the growing costs may not be justifiable."

Other research has suggested that the laws may not only be ineffective at reducing sex offending, but they may paradoxically increase sex offenders' risk through the secondary effects of social stigmatization, loss of employment and housing, and even physical victimization, all of which increase stress and social isolation and make it harder for sex offenders to successfully reintegrate into society.

Americans are standing in hours-long, Depression-style lines for a couple of free eggs at Denny's. Our schools cannot even afford pencils or electricity in the classrooms. Yet we are willing to pay millions for laws that only provide an illusion of safety. Something is wrong with this picture.

The study, "Megan's Law: Assessing the Practical and Monetary Efficacy," by researchers Kristen Zgoba, Philip Witt, Melissa Dalessandro, and Bonita Veysey, is available here.

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