U.S. Department of Justice; Office of Justice Programs; National Institute of Justice.
by Kristen M. Zgoba, Ph.D., and Karen Bachar.
In 1994, 7-year-old Megan Kanka was raped and murdered by Jesse Timmendequas, a sex offender who had been released after serving a maximum sentence. In response to this event and other sex crimes, community members successfully lobbied for the enactment of a law that requires sex offender registration and notification to the public that a sex offender is living and working in the community. Since the mid-1990s, all 50 states and the District of Columbia have passed similar legislation, collectively referred to as “Megan’s Law.” Underlying these laws is the belief that notifying the public of the presence of sex offenders in their community allows citizens to take protective measures against sex offenders who live nearby.
Researchers for the first time have conducted an independent scientific assessment of the effects of the law in New Jersey. They analyzed data from before and after the law was enacted. The study’s primary goal was to examine the impact of the law on the state as a whole and each county within the state. (See “Limitations of the Study” for what researchers were unable to examine.) Researchers studying the impact of registration and notification laws in other states have found similar results.
- Sex offense rates in New Jersey have been on a consistent downward trend since 1985. During this period, rearrests for violent crime (whether sex crimes or not) also decreased. When the researchers examined the decline in each county and then examined the state as a whole, the resulting statistical analysis showed that the greatest rate of decline for sex offending occurred prior to 1994 and the least rate of decline occurred after 1995. Hence the data show that the greatest rate of decline in sex offending occurred prior to the passage and implementation of Megan’s Law.
- Megan’s Law did not reduce the number of rearrests for sex offenses, nor did it have any demonstrable effect on the time between when sex offenders were released from prison and the time they were rearrested for any new offense, such as a drug, theft or sex offense.
- The majority of sexual offenders sentenced in New Jersey are convicted of incest and child molestation. In more than half the cases, the victim and offender know each other. Megan’s Law did not have an effect on this pattern: The bulk of offenses and reoffenses committed both before and after the law remained child molestation and incest.
- Megan’s Law had no demonstrable effect on the number of victims involved in sexual offenses, i.e., the data show no reduction in the numbers of victims.
- Sexual offenders convicted after Megan’s Law was passed received shorter sentences than those convicted before the law; sentences before Megan’s Law were nearly twice as long as those afterwards. However, fewer sexual offenders have been paroled since the law was passed, due largely to changes in sentencing guidelines. As a result, offenders convicted before and after Megan’s Law serve approximately the same amount of time.
- Estimates of the cost show that New Jersey spent $555,565 to implement the law in 1995. In 2006, the estimated cost of implementing the law was approximately $3.9 million, based on data received from 15 of New Jersey’s 21 counties.