Advocates, experts question proposed changes to Megan’s Law

Legislation passed by the Assembly’s public safety committee would allow counties to send email alerts notifying residents when a convicted sex offender moves into the neighborhood. Residents who sign up for the service would get messages with the name, photo, offense and address of local registered sex offenders delivered directly into their inboxes.

Currently, about 75 percent of convicted sex offenders in California must register their address with local law enforcement, and that information is then available to the public on a website run by the California Department of Justice. Sex offenders are required to update their information annually and notify local authorities within five days if they move or become homeless.

The notification law will improve access to information about convicted sex offenders in the community by putting it into an email alert, according to Assemblyman Nathan Fletcher (R-San Diego), who sponsored the legislation.

“It’s going to bring Megan’s Law into the twenty-first century by providing information to parents in a proactive manner,” said Christina Di Leva, communications director for Fletcher.

“More information,” Di Leva added, “is always better.”

Sex offenders have been required to register in California since 1947. Names and addresses of sex offenders have been available to the public since 1996 in California, under what’s commonly referred to as Megan’s Law. The notification law is named after Megan Kanka, a seven-year-old girl who was murdered in 1994 by a convicted registered sex offender who lived across the street. New Jersey, where Kanka lived, was the first state to adopt the law, and most states quickly followed suit.

Some victim advocates and treatment providers worry that notification doesn’t improve public safety, and may have the unintended consequence of making communities less safe.

Notification laws have done nothing to reduce the number of sexual assaults in California or elsewhere, experts say. A study of Megan’s Law in New Jersey submitted to the Department of Justice in 2008, for example, showed that notification did not reduce sex crimes there.

“All of the studies that have been done cannot show any positive effect,” said Tom Tobin, Ph.D., vice-chair of the California Sex Offender Management Board. The Board was formed in 2006 to advise the legislature on managing convicted sex offenders.

The California Coalition Against Sexual Assault, a prominent voice for victim’s rights in California, agrees. Asked if notification laws reduced sexual assaults, CALCASA’s Phillip Ung said: “I’m going to be really frank – no.”

Registration and notification laws – along with other laws that require sex offenders to wear GPS tracking devices – are popular because they make people feel safer. “The voters have decided that this is what they want,” said Ung, who is a public policy advocate for CALCASA.

Wanting information about convicted sex offenders in your community is perfectly understandable, Ung added. CALCASA isn’t opposed to the proposed revision to the law. The group would like, however, to combine registration information with education.

Vigilantism is a particular concern. “We don’t want emails that say there is a sex offender in your neighborhood, this is his face and this is his address,” with no other context, Ung said.

The sex offender registry website does provide a series of cautions about using the information in the database. The site asks users to read through warnings about possible misinformation before they enter the site, and also warns that using the information to commit a crime carries extra penalties under California law.

The proposed legislation would require no such warning attached to emails, Di Leva said, and it would be up to each county to decide if they would like to include this information in their email alerts.

The urge is to ostracize people convicted of sex crimes and force them out of the community. People who are passionate about this issue have been known to picket and poster the houses of sex offenders in their community, Ung said.

Most people are unaware that such strategies can be counterproductive, he added.

High-risk sex offenders in California are managed under a what’s called a containment strategy, a collaboration between parole, treatment providers and polygraphers to keep sex offenders from committing more crimes.

“Consistency, a job and a way to be a part of the community helps with recovery,” Ung said.

Such an approach might sound like coddling sex offenders, Ung said, but the goal is to use the most effective methods to prevent more sex crimes. “The more stable their life is, the less chance of recidivism.”

In California, victim advocates also collaborate in the containment strategy to keep the process of managing sex offenders in perspective. “The whole goal is to end victimization,” Tobin said. “Including victim advocates reminds the team that the goal is to keep the community safe, and is immersed in that perspective.”

The email notification change to Megan’s Law, which was approved by the safety committee with a vote of 6-0 on April 14, will move next to the appropriations committee for approval.

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