Collateral Damage in America's War on Sex Crimes

About

This blog covers the experiences of family members of people whose names, photos, and home addresses appear on state sex offender registries.

In 2008, researchers surveyed nearly 600 immediate family members who live with registrants. The resulting article, in a 2009 issue of the American Journal of Criminal Justice, reported that 86 percent didn’t believe that their family member was a risk to reoffend. They had good reason–only 11 percent of them had a family member who was classed as a high-risk offender.

Even so, nearly all of the family members surveyed reported that the registry tore apart their lives in some way. Fifty-nine percent said that they’d experienced ridicule, 44 percent that they’d been threatened or harassed by neighbors because of their family member’s status, 27 percent that their property had been damaged, and 7 percent that they’d been physically assaulted or injured. Almost 80 percent experienced depression, and 13 percent had suicidal tendencies.

To understand these family members’ experiences, you have to travel back in time to the early nineties.

On July 29 1994, Megan Kanka, a blond 7-year-old from the Hamilton Township suburb in New Jersey, was lured into the house of an ex-prisoner named Jesse Timmendequas who lived across the street. Timmendequas then raped and murdered her, dumping her body in a nearby park. Before their daughter’s killing, Megan’s parents had no idea of Timmendequas’ history–six years in prison for aggravated assault and attempted sexual assault on another child.

The Kankas lobbied the New Jersey legislature for changes. They got 425,000 names on a petition for a new law to require law enforcement to release information about convicted sex offenders to the public. Within a month of Megan’s murder, the New Jersey Assembly, without holding any committee hearings, passed a package of bills collectively known as Megan’s Law.

It mandated police to notify communities when a released sex offender was planning to move into their neighborhood and to put information about high-risk offenders on the Internet. Two months later, the New Jersey legislature unanimously voted in favor and Governor Christine Todd Whitman signed it into law.

New Jersey’s law soon went national. In May 1996, Megan’s Law passed Congress and was signed by President Clinton.

The law mandated that states create public websites–known as sex offender registries–where they post the names, addresses, and photos of sex offenders who have served their time. The 2006 Adam Walsh Act went further and linked those state websites into a single, national website. Many states and towns around the country have passed additional rules. Some, for example, prohibit sex offenders from living near places where large numbers of children congregate, like parks, daycare centers, and schools.

The logic behind Megan’s Law is simple and attractive. If high-risk offenders are out there, we should know who they are and where they live. That formula might indeed protect children had the law’s net not been cast impossibly wide to include even those who have committed misdemeanors like urinating in public.

More important, many of those on the registry have families of their own. Though estimates are difficult,with more than 700,000 people on the sex offender registry, Women Against the Registry, a grassroots group, estimates that there are at least a half million children living with a parent who is a registrant.

 

About the author: Steven Yoder has written investigative and feature stories for national magazines and news sites on criminal justice, immigration, and a range of other domestic policy and political issues as a freelance reporter for the last 10 years. His clients have included Salon, The American Prospect, Good, The Fiscal Times, Men’s Health, and others.