A Look at Megan’s Law

Issues of crime and punishment are often at the center of controversy.  In part, this is certainly because often, the issues raised in matters of crime and punishment do not have easy answers and sometimes, there may not be any solution at all.  Certainly, each time a legal matter arises, even with similar circumstances, the resolution to such matters can be complex and can differ with each and every case.  We can gain some understanding as to the difficulty in deciding how to view and treat such matters by considering the case of Megan’s Law.

On July 29, 1994 Jesse Timmendequas, already a convicted sex offender at the time, is believed to have used a puppy to lure Megan Kanka, the 7-year-old daughter of his neighbors, into his home in Hamilton Township, Mercer County, NJ and brutally raped and murdered her (Flanagan, 2004; Vachss, 1994).   Once inside, Timmendequas is said to have slammed Megan’s head into a dresser and suffocated her with a plastic bag before strangling her to death with a belt.  Subsequently, he moved and raped Megan’s dead body again before dumping the body in a nearby park in West Windsor, NJ.

Timmendequas was convicted of murder and sentenced to death for his crime.  After his conviction, New Jersey passed a law that has come to be known as Megan’s law.  The law was designed to protect a community when dangerous sex offenders move into the community.  Some states require notification only for certain types of sexual assaults while other states extended the requirement to individuals convicted of sodomy or consensual sodomy, an act that was illegal in some states even between consenting adults before the U.S. Supreme Court declared such laws unconstitutional in June 2003.

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Is it actually the “punishment” of the individual who committed the crime, protection of the community, both, neither or more?  Second, in situations of serious crimes of this nature, should offenders be subjected to a lifetime of repayment for their crimes after serving their allotted term of imprisonment?  Third, when considering punishment, are the rights of the victim, the community or the offender more important; are all the rights equally important?  Finally, what goal(s) was(were) the Criminal Justice System attempting to achieve by instituting Megan’s law.

Megan’s Law has been the focus of considerable controversy and heated debate.  After Megan’s rape and murder, there was considerable controversy regarding the question of whether the Kanka family may indeed have known that a sex offender (not necessarily Timmendequas, however) lived in the house across the street.  Although the Kanka family denied having any knowledge of Timmendequas’ criminal past as a sex offender, there was evidence to suggest that it was common knowledge that at least one of the residents of the house where Timmendequas lived had a criminal past that included sexual assault, rape and gang shootings. (Vachss 1994)

Even before Megan’s rape and murder, law enforcement officials knew that three convicted sex offenders lived in the house where Timmendequas lived.  Although Megan’s parents’ claimed not to have been aware of this fact, some of their neighbors did know of the three men’s past.  Even so, Maureen Kanka, Megan’s mother, felt that people should not need to rely on gossip and rumors in order to learn about the presence of convicted sex offenders in their neighborhood.

Perhaps first and foremost in any legal situation is the question as to the goal(s) of punishment.  What exactly are the goals of punishment?  Punishment for crimes is supposed to be to deter crime.  Punishment penalties and law are based on utilitarianism, the idea that there should be no unnecessary punishment (UBSBA).  This idea says that we should evaluate laws on the basis of future consequences and suggests that punishment is always bad because it causes pain.

Thus, “The reason to punish is to prevent future crime and the limit is to punish only if the pain is outweighed by the happiness it creates.”  Crime and Punishment theory proposes the four questions should be asked when analyzing legal theories of punishment.  They are, 1) Is the punishment to prevent future crimes or to punish past misconduct, 2) Does the theory of punishment assume that the crime was caused by the individual or social problems, 3) Does the theory express blame for the proscribed act and actor and

4) What is the relationship between the criminal and the rest of society?  That is, is the criminal part of society or excluded from society?  The threat of punishment is believed to stop rational people from doing something that ultimately will not be to their benefit, but the deterrent value of punishment is only thought to be effective if people are aware of the punishment prior to committing crimes.

Megan’s law was not meant to be a form of punishment.  Rather, it was designed to be an act that would provide information to prevent potential crime in situations where the potential may be real.  Some have argued that the law may lead to vigilantes formed against convicted sex offenders and the harassment of those offenders, but that was not the intension of the law.  Its purpose was to enhance public safety.  Although former sex offenders may be harmed by the law, supporters of the law claim that whatever incidental inconvenience or harm the former sex-offender may suffer as a result of the law is an unavoidable consequence of their own past illegal behavior.  It does not outweigh the community’s right to know the possible danger of their presence.

This case raises the question, “Should offenders be subjected to a lifetime of repayment for their crimes after serving a term of imprisonment?”    This is not an easy question to answer.  Theoretically, a person should not need to continue to pay for past crimes a second time, or continue paying for them once they have paid, but that idea is fraught with problems and more or less impossible to enforce.  In fact, it is also impossible to determine what actually constitutes “payment for crime.”

In life, individuals may pay for things they have done long after they have done whatever it was even if their legal payment has been completed.  We may pay in terms of paranoia, feelings of guilt and other mental and psychological payments long after any legal payment or even without legal payment.  So, psychological repayment for crimes may continue for a lifetime even if social and legal repayment do not.  A person’s own mental and psychological retribution for their acts may continue indefinitely.

Many psychological situations are viewed as diseases even though we don’t really have a definition for (or officially believe in the existence of) the soul.  Psychology, for example, is, by definition, the study of the soul, but if asked, most people, including psychologists and psychiatrists would state that psychology is the study of the mind.  Ironically, psychologists do not officially believe in the existence of the mind either!

Furthermore, sex offenses are often treated as if such crimes were caused by a disease or were a disease themselves.  However, even with real or other diseases (if we allow, just for the sake of argument, that some such offenses are the results of disease), there is no hard and firm definition of a disease even in situations where virtually everyone would agree that the situation (such as with cancer of cardiovascular disease) is a disease.

The “retribution” theory of punishment holds that individuals should only be punished if they have done something wrong and their punishment should be in proportion to the wrong they have done.  This theory proposes that it is right to inflict pain, but recognizes that the innocent can get punished for things they did not do.  This is certainly a very serious consideration in any case of capital punishment.

In other situations, an alleged criminal may eventually get a reprieve and be exonerated for a crime he or she did not commit even though their exoneration might come until after they have lost a few or even many valuable years in prison serving a term for a crime they did not commit.  However, in capital cases, exoneration is of little value after the alleged individual has been executed, and certainly, the criminal justice system must have executed many innocent individuals over the years.

In such cases, both the known victim(s) of the crime and the individual accused of the crime become victims while the guilty party may permanently escape justice.  No one is punished for the crime because the individual who is punished is innocent.  So, the actual criminal has more or less committed an additional crime and gotten away with it.

Whose rights are most important?  This question cannot be answered as asked.  The answer is not merely a matter of rights, but more a matter of safety.  The intent is to err on the side of safety, so the initial question has more to do with, “What will render the individuals of a community safe” than “Whose rights are most important”, certainly an important issue as well.  Some feel that Megan’s law gives a false sense of security.  Statistics from the Bureau of Justice indicate that the overwhelming majority of sexually assaulted minors were victimized by family members or acquaintances rather than by strangers.

In fact, these statistics suggest that those who appear on a sex offenders registry would not really significantly resolve the problem of sex offenses against minors.  Thus, laws directed against the occasional stranger who might sexually assault minors would be like the tip of an iceberg in dealing with the actual problem.  Most victims will still be victimized and most of those guilty of the offense will never serve justice.  With the guilty party still free, laws similar to Megan’s law would not really make most people any safer even if made people feel that way.

However, statistics from the Bureau of Justice also indicate that sex offenders discharged from prison or sentenced to probation generally have a lower rate of re-arrest than other violent offenders but are substantially more likely than other violent offenders to be rearrested for a new violent sex offense (U.S. Department of Justice Press Release).  In cases of rape alone, execution is not an option.  Some have proposed that rapists be castrated (Vachss, 1993).  Castration is thought to emanate the male sex drive, but castration won’t prevent murder as was the case in Megan Kanka’s situation and some individuals get a vicarious thrill from the act of murder itself.

Ultimately, the questions raised here are neither easy or straightforward.  Society may find those individuals who have committed violent sex offenses, try them, convict and sentence them and the accused individual, whether or not actually guilty, may pay for the crime.  However, it is certain that some guilty individuals will never be found, some innocent individuals will pay for sex (and other) crimes they have not committed and the laws designed to make society safer will work successfully at times and not at others.

Perhaps we must live with the realization that answering the difficult questions raised here will not resolve our dilemma no matter what decisions we are ultimately to make.  All that we can actually do is to put laws in place that we believe will achieve a goal and then deal with every situation that arises on a case by case basis.  If we are honest and fair with our assessment, we will not trample the rights of victims nor victimize criminals any more than is necessary, if at all.  Our goal must be to try to be fair while protecting the safety of communities and those who live in them.  While we will never get the balance completely right, fairness is the key.

References

Flanagan, Russ.  “Megan’s legacy, A child’s death serves as a call to action”.  The Express Times, February 26, 2004.

Vachss, Andrew.  “How Many Dead Children Are Needed to End the Rhetoric?”  New York Daily News, August 12, 1994

Vachss, Andrew.  “Sex Predators Can’t Be Saved.”  New York Times, January 5, 1993

Wikipedia, February, 7, 2007. <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Murder_of_Megan_Kanka#Jesse_Timmendequas> 4 January 2007.

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