Labeling Sex Offenders Won't Protect Children

Article excerpt

JESSE K. TIMMENDEQUAS IS NOT THE SORT OF person you want to know, much less have as a neighbor. Now 35, he has spent at least the past 15 years either sexually abusing children or serving time for doing so. He has confessed twice to child molestation, and one judge called him a "compulsive, repetitive sexual offender."

In 1994, according to the police and prosecutors in New Jersey, Timmendequas preyed on another little girl, 7-year-old Megan Kanka. This time, they say, his brutality did not stop at sexual abuse; this time, he murdered his victim. Megan, it turned out, had Timmendequas as a neighbor. When he and two other sex offenders were released from prison, they moved into her community of Hamilton, New Jersey. The authorities did not inform the Kankas or anyone else on the block that the ex-convicts were coming. One day, police report, Timmendequas lured Megan away by promising her the chance to pet a puppy. Once he had her alone, he strangled her.

The justifiable outrage that followed Megan's death has led to an unjustifiable law named for her, first on a state level and then in federal legislation, signed in May 1996 by President Clinton. "Megan's Laws," as the statues have come to be known, require authorities to notify communities when a child molester is released into their midst. An example is New York State's Megan's Law, officially known as the Sex Offender Registration Act. Under its provisions, offenders must register with the state's Division of Criminal Justice Services within ten days of being released from prison. Some offenders must then verify their home address annually for ten years. High-risk offenders must keep in touch every 90 days. When Governor George Pataki signed the law early in 1996, he declared: "This will make New York's communities safer for our children."

He's wrong. So is the law. The best intentions--and they abound in tile case of victimized children and their pained survivors--don't always result in good laws. Megan's Law is an example. It won't resurrect Megan or protect her peers. It certainly won't rehabilitate child molesters, which is the action society needs to take to guard youngsters. Warning parents about a potential threat to their children is a worthwhile goal, but Megan's Law is so unconstitutional that it can't survive a serious challenge in the courts. A federal judge has already blocked enforcement of the New Jersey version of the law on which the laws of other states have been modeled. Once Megan's Law has been removed from the books, as it inevitably will be, society will be back where it started. Maybe then it will direct its rage in the proper direction: toward taking some serious action to deal with sex offenders rather than opting for quick fixes and bad laws.

It's not difficult to see why the federal judge has put the brakes on Megan's Law. First of all, it unjustly continues the punishment of the person after he or she has served time. Released from prison, a person is labeled by the state of New York as either a level-one, -two, or -three risk, which determines who will be told about his or her crimes. Level-three persons have to register for life; they will not only have information about their crimes disseminated but also have their exact addresses given to the public, in much the same way that red meat is given to leopards. Some people want punishment to continue beyond the prison walls because, they rightly complain, offenders are released too early from prison. Sentenced to ten years for one of his offenses, for example, Timmendequas was paroled after serving only a few months. Such foreshortened punishment is ineffective and should be ended, but it does not justify extending penalties past the walls of prison.

A second reason such laws are wrong is that they pick out one specific group of criminals for special treatment. Why select only child molesters for such public labeling? Why not burglars? I'd sure like to know when one of them moves in next door. …