What is Megan's Law?

G. Wiesen
G. Wiesen
Woman holding a book
Woman holding a book

Megan’s law is a term used to refer to one of a number of states' laws in the United States (US) that require public access to information regarding registered sexual offenders, specifically those who have targeted children. These laws are typically used in conjunction with the federal US law that requires states to maintain and update a registry of sexual offenders. The basic idea behind such laws is that sexual offenders may commit multiple offenses, and that people should be aware of anyone with a history of sexual offense against children living in their neighborhood. Megan’s law is named after Megan Kanka, a seven-year-old New Jersey girl who was sexually assaulted and murdered by a repeat offender.

In many respects, Megan’s law is often associated with the Jacob Wetterling Crimes Against Children and Sexually Violent Offender Registration Act, both of which were established in 1994. Jacob Wetterling was an 11-year old boy who was kidnapped at gunpoint in 1989, and it is believed the kidnapper had committed previous assaults against young boys. In response to these types of crimes, the Jacob Wetterling Act established a requirement for each state in the US to create a registry of the names and addresses of sex offenders.

Paul Kramer, a member of the New Jersey General Assembly, introduced the initiative that became Megan’s law after Megan Kanka was raped and murdered by a repeat sexual offender who lived across the street from the young girl with two other convicted and released sex offenders. According to Megan’s law, and variants of the law in other states, the registry established in a state regarding sex offenders must be made publicly available through a number of different means. This often includes Internet websites that allow people to search a location or neighborhood and see if convicted sex offenders live in the area, along with information such as the names of offenders, a photograph, and for what offense they were convicted.

While the effectiveness of Megan’s law is rather hotly debated, many parents and youth advocacy groups defend such laws as ways to alert parents and children to the presence of potential predators. Those who oppose these laws, however, often point to the number of offenders who do not commit repeat offenses, but who are not allowed to reform and re-enter society free of harassment. In the United Kingdom (UK) a law similar to Megan’s law, named Sarah’s law after an eight-year old who was abducted and murdered, would allow citizens to be aware of the presence of a sex offender but likely not reveal the identity of the person.

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