Megan’s Law is a federal law that requires law enforcement authorities to make information regarding registered sex offenders available to the public. State laws that were enacted after the federal law are often referred to informally as “Megan’s Law” also.
The federal Megan’s Law refers to public disclosure of sex offender registry information. A state level “Megan’s Law” may refer both to a law that requires sex offender registration and a law or provision in a law that requires public disclosure of sex offender registry information.
The federal Megan’s Law requires that only people convicted of sex crimes involving children to notify local law enforcement of any change of address or employment after they are released from custody, i.e. prison or a psychiatric facility. They may be required to provide notification for a fixed period of time, usually at least ten years, or permanently. Some state laws require registration for all sex crimes, even if minors were not involved. In most states, it is a felony to fail to register or to fail to update information.
The federal Megan’s Law was preceded by the Jacob Wetterling Crimes Against Children and Sexually Violent Offender Registration Act. This act required all states to set up sex offender registration programs. They are required to include the identification and registration of lifelong sexual predators. Megan’s Law then required the states to disclose the information in their registries to the public.
Prior to release from a variety of institutions, convicted sex offenders are notified by authorities that they are required to register. Once they relocate and register, the registration is sent to the Department of Justice in their state. The institutions that notify sex offenders of their registration requirement when they are released from custody include jails, prisons, mental institutions, and mental hospitals.
Megan’s laws in some states stipulate that offenders must re-register every year and when they move from one residence to another. Some states may set more specific regulations. For example, California requires that transient, or homeless, offenders register every 30 days. California also requires that violent sexual predators must re-register every 90 days.
Ways in which the public can access the information vary by state. Also, the details of what information is provided as part of sex offender registration vary from state to state. In some states the required registration information and community notification protocols have changed many times since the original Megan’s Law was passed.
The federal Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act supplements Megan’s Law with new registration requirements and a three-tier system for classifying sex offenders according to certain identified criminal offenses that require registration. Tier 3 are the most serious offenses; Tier 2 are somewhat less grave and Tier 1 are the least serious offenses.
The Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act also mandates that Tier 3 offenders update their locations every three months for the remainder of their life. Tier 2 offenders must update their locations every six months for 25 years of registration, and Tier 1 offenders must update their whereabouts every year for 15 years.
Failure to register and failure to update information are both felony offenses under the Adam Walsh act. States are required to publicly disclose information about Tier 2 and Tier 3 offenders. It also contains civil commitment provisions for sexually dangerous people.
The Adam Walsh Act also organizes all U.S. state and territory sex offender registries into one searchable national database and instructs each state and territory to apply the same criteria for posting offender data on the internet. The data that must be posted include the offender’s name, address, date of birth, place of employment, and a photograph. The Act was named after Adam Walsh, a boy who was abducted from a shopping mall in Florida and later found murdered.
California and others have websites where any person can search by their zip code, city or other locality for registered sex offenders who reside near them. Other states have different websites or access available only via toll phone numbers or in person at one’s local law enforcement agency.
The federal database is online as well. The federal database enables searches through state websites by first and last name.
Why Is It Called “Megan’s Law”?
Megan was a seven-year-old girl residing in New Jersey who was raped and murdered by one of the three convicted sex offenders who moved in across the street from her parent’s house. Megan’s parents did not know that their neighbors were sex offenders.
Are All Sex Offenders Disclosed to the Public?
Rules vary by state but some states will exempt certain classes of convicted sex offender from having their identities and locations disclosed to the public. For example, a person caught urinating in a park could be arrested for committing a lewd act in public, which might be classified as a sex offense that requires registration. Reasonable people, however, might view the crime as one that does not show the same degree of criminality as that of a person who committed rape or molestation.
Some states may include all sex offenders as a default and require those who believe they should be exempted, to submit an application to be excluded from public disclosure. Other states might exempt people convicted of certain relatively minor offenses from their registration requirement.
Are There Any Legal Protections for Sex Offenders?
Megan’s law allows the general public access to a registered sex offender’s location but, of course, does not authorize or condone violence or any other criminal activity against an offender. If a registered sex offender believes that they are being attacked, harassed, or otherwise assaulted, they should contant local law enforcement authorities and speak to a lawyer.
There is limited and mixed evidence to support the effectiveness of public sex offender registries. The results of most research does not show a statistically significant shift in sexual offense trends following the implementation of sex offender registration and notificatiion requirements. A few studies indicate that recidivism among sex offenders may have been reduced by sex offender registration and notification policies; a few studies have found statistically significant increases in sex crimes following the implementation of offender registration and notification policies.
Some critics suggest that sex offender registration and notification requirements arguably have been implemented in the absence of empirical evidence that shows they are effective. Opponents of Megan’s Law, such as Human Rights Watch, have criticized the laws as overbroad and an invitation to vigilante violence.
Among the critics are treatment professionals who note the lack of evidence that the laws are effective. They also point to the fact that offenders are automatically included among those who must register, when no determination is made as to whether they pose a risk of reoffense. There are risk assessment tools that have been scientifically validated and could be used to assess the individual risk of reoffending.
There is a popular belief that recidivism among sex offenders is high, but this is not supported by science. Other critics have argued that the laws can actually harm rather than improve public safety by worsening factors, such as unemployment and instability, that may lead to recidivism.
In addition, civil rights and other pro-reform groups stress the collateral adverse effects on the family members of registrants. They question whether it is fair to require indefinite registration that may last a lifetime, especially when the offender may be a person under the age of consent who engaged in consensual acts with someone close in age, i.e. a teenager who engaged in consensual acts with another teenager.
Do I Need a Lawyer?
If you are a registered sex offender, or if you live in a neighborhood with registered sex offenders, you may want to consult with a criminal defense attorney.
An experienced criminal defense attorney can explain the requirements for registration in the state in which you are located. They can also explain how you can inform yourself about whether registered sex offenders live in proximity to you.