The Details And Controversies Of Megan’s Law, Explained

What is Megan's Law? It created the state sex offender registry, requiring offenders to report to local law enforcement and remain monitored, often for life. Sex offender laws derive from tragedy - with names like Megan's Law, the Jacob Wetterling Act, and Jessica's Law - and seek to provide justice for horrific crimes. So while few doubt the need for these laws, many question their scope, as current legislation tends to treat all offenders equally.

Take, for instance, the so-called "Romeo and Juliet" scenario, where an 18-year-old high school senior has consensual sex with his girlfriend, a 15-year-old high school sophomore, in a state where the age of consent is 16. Is this as egregious as a 45-year-old man who abducts and rapes a child? In the eyes of the law, those two sets of offenders often appear the same.

Many believe Megan's Law is a step towards justice, but others claim it has flaws. It fails to recognize most children endure abuse by someone they know, not a stranger. This fact alone makes it unlikely a registry would save a child's life. In the case of youthful offenders, meanwhile, a number of them don't go on to commit crimes as an adult.

Regardless of the issues, Megan's Law has brought about some serious consequences for offenders.

  • Megan's Law Requires Sex Offenders To Register Where They Live
    Photo: US Government / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Megan's Law Requires Sex Offenders To Register Where They Live

    All states instituted Megan's Law in 1996 in response to the murder of 7-year-old Megan Kanka in New Jersey in 1994; a convicted sex offender killed her. This state and federal law requires sex offenders to register their whereabouts with the police, meaning they must update local law enforcement when they move.

    Megan's Law is an amendment to the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994. The amendment specifically requires states to adopt the federal statute - that is, states must pass laws requiring sex offenders to register where they live. 

  • There Was Pushback To Megan's Law Almost Immediately

    Though Megan's Law has become more all-encompassing since its initial enactment in 1996, the law met pushback almost immediately.

    Those who opposed Megan's Law felt concerned about citizens using the sex offender registries to commit vigilante justice. They also made cases about how sex offenders had served their time in prison and should have the chance to restart their lives as normal citizens. Though state courts overruled Megan's Law on several occasions, the Supreme Court has stayed the course and continually upheld Megan's Law. 

  • A New Jersey Court Ruled To Change Megan's Law In 2018

    In April 2018, a New Jersey court found part of Megan's Law unconstitutional. The case in question examined a young man convicted for sexually assaulting his seven-year-old brother when he was 15. The young man stood trial and faced conviction as a juvenile, but the law said he had to remain on the sex offender registry for life. 

    New Jersey changed the registry requirements for juvenile offenders. After 15 years, the offender could apply for removal from the registry. The application earns the offender a hearing with a judge, who would then determine if the offender still presents a risk to society. 

  • A Study In Florida Showed The Unintended Consequences Of The Law
    Photo: / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 4.0

    A Study In Florida Showed The Unintended Consequences Of The Law

    Researchers interviewed nearly 183 convicted sex offenders in Florida to learn more about how Megan's Law affected them after their release from prison. Though bodily harm was rare, about a third of the offenders suffered in other ways - by losing a job or home; having their residence or property damaged; or being threatened in some way. 

    The study showed some offenders saw positives in Megan's Law, while others didn't believe Megan's Law made children safer - especially since the registry sometimes had incorrect or incomplete information. Still, certain offenders said registering with the state did encourage good behavior and forced them to remain honest with people in their lives. 

  • States Have Control Over The Interpretation Of Megan's Law

    Not all sex offender registries are equal, as states have the power to interpret Megan's Law as they see fit. In 2003, 39 states had searchable registries online. As of September 2018, however, the FBI provides searchable databases for all 50 states and some territories. 

    In some states, databases include pictures, physical characteristics, details about the offender's crimes, and more. Sometimes, full addresses for a home and workplace are on record. Concerned citizens can search for offenders in many ways, including by address, zip code, and Social Security number.

  • Depending On Where You Live, Offenders Can Remove Their Name From The Registry

    The requirements of Megan's Law extend beyond simply reporting home and work addresses to law enforcement. Sex offenders also have to regularly check in with police, such as every few months or once a year. Sex offenders who are homeless have more stringent requirements in some states; for example, in Kansas, they must check in with police every three days. 

    In California and South Carolina, offenders are on the registry for life without exception. In Utah, however, an offender's name automatically gets removed after 10 years. Some states allow offenders to petition the courts for removal after a set period, particularly for offenders who committed the crime as minors. But 15 states still have no law establishing petition requirements.