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Megan’s Law: Assessing the Practical and Monetary Efficacy

December 2008:

The research that follows concerns the various impacts of community notification and registration laws (Megan’s Law) in New Jersey. Although this report includes a variety of interesting findings and many ideas that will be explored upon post grant period, this research was embarked upon, in general, to investigate: 1) the effect of Megan’s Law on the overall rate of sexual offending over time; 2) its specific deterrence effect on re-offending, including the level of general and sexual offense recidivism, the nature of sexual re-offenses, and time to first re-arrest for sexual and non-sexual re-offenses (i.e., community tenure); and 3) the costs of implementation and annual expenditures of Megan’s Law. These three primary foci were investigated using three different methodologies and samples.

Phase One was a 21-year (10 years prior and 10 years after implementation, and the year of implementation) trend study of sex offenses in each of New Jersey¡¦s counties and of the state as a whole. In Phase Two, data on 550 sexual offenders released during the years 1990 to 2000 were collected, and outcomes of interest were analyzed. Finally, Phase Three collected implementation and ongoing costs of administering Megan¡¦s Law. The following points highlight the major findings of the three phases of the study.

„« New Jersey, as a whole, has experienced a consistent downward trend of sexual offense rates with a significant change in the trend in 1994.

„« In all but two counties, sexual offense rates were highest prior to 1994 and were lowest after 1995.

„« County trends exhibit substantial variation and do not reflect the statewide trend, suggesting that the statewide change point in 1994 is an artifact of aggregation.

„« In the offender release sample, there is a consistent downward trend in re-arrests, reconvictions and re-incarcerations over time similar to that observed in the trend study, except in 1995 when all measures spiked to a high for that period. This resulted in significant differences between cohorts (i.e., those released prior to and after Megan¡¦s Law was implemented).

„« Re-arrests for violent crime (whether sexual or not) also declined steadily over the same period, resulting in a significant difference between cohorts (i.e., those released prior to and after Megan¡¦s Law was implemented).

„« Megan¡¦s Law has no effect on community tenure (i.e., time to first re-arrest).

„« Megan¡¦s Law showed no demonstrable effect in reducing sexual re-offenses.

„« Megan¡¦s Law has no effect on the type of sexual re-offense or first time sexual offense (still largely child molestation/incest).

„« Megan¡¦s Law has no effect on reducing the number of victims involved in sexual offenses.

„« Sentences received prior to Megan¡¦s Law were nearly twice as long as those received after Megan¡¦s Law was passed, but time served was approximately the same.

„« Significantly fewer sexual offenders have been paroled after the implementation of Megan¡¦s Law than before (this is largely due to changes in sentencing).

„« Costs associated with the initial implementation as well as ongoing expenditures continue to grow over time. Start up costs totaled $555,565 and current costs (in 2007) totaled approximately 3.9 million dollars for the responding counties.

„« Given the lack of demonstrated effect of Megan¡¦s Law on sexual offenses, the growing costs may not be justifiable.

INTRODUCTION On July 29, 1994, Jesse Timmendequas, a sex offender who had been released after serving a maximum sentence in a New Jersey correctional facility, raped and murdered seven-year-old Megan Kanka in Hamilton, New Jersey.

The intense community reaction that followed extended well beyond the state. One expression of community outrage was the enactment of laws to notify the public of the presence of sex offenders living and working in their community. The premise was, and still is, that with this knowledge, citizens will take protective measures against these nearby sex offenders. As Beck, Clingermayer, Ramsey and Travis (2004) note, “Exactly what action is expected is not clear, but it is hoped that, armed with this critical information, citizens will work on their own or in concert with government to make their neighborhoods safer” (p. 142).

During the following decade, all 50 states and the District of Columbia enacted some version of such community registration and notification laws, collectively referred to as “Megan’s Laws” (Presser & Gunnison, 1999; Zevitz & Farkas, 2000). Although a few states, such as Washington, had enacted community notification laws prior to 1994, the federalization of community notification laws in 1996 created strong incentives for other states to follow suit (Presser & Gunnison, 1999).

The legislation known as Megan’s Law, includes both registration and notification. Sex offenders must register their addresses with local police jurisdictions within a specified time of release from prison. By way of the registration process, the public is then notified of the offender’s presence in the neighborhood. The goal of notification is to inform both the public and past victims so that they can protect themselves accordingly.

As with other states, registration and notification are separate steps in New Jersey, but are often referred to as one process. In New Jersey, offenders are placed into one of three tiers, representing a hierarchy of potential risk of an offender’s re-offense. A risk assessment instrument is used to predict the offender’s likelihood of re-offense, which ultimately determines placement into the tier. Tier one represents the lowest risk and requires only notification of law enforcement officials and the victims. Offenders are considered low risk and eligible for a tier one placement if they received a low risk assessment score and are on probation/ parole, receiving therapy, employed and free of alcohol and drugs. A tier two classification represents a moderate risk of a re-offense.

It requires notification of organizations, educational institutions, day care centers and summer camps. The factors for placement into a tier two category include a moderate to high risk assessment score, failure to comply with supervision, lack of employment, abuse of drugs or alcohol, denial of offenses, lack of remorse, history of loitering or stalking children and making threats (Brooks, 1996; Matson & Lieb, 1997; Witt & Barone, 2004). Tier three offenders are those who are predicted to present the greatest risk to re-offend. This category has generated the most legal resistance because it calls for the broadest level of notification. The entire community is notified through posters and pamphlets. The factors necessary for the placement into a tier three category are a high probability of re-offending evidenced by a particularly heinous instant offense or a high-risk assessment score, repetitive and compulsive behavior, sexual preference for children, failure or refusal of treatment, denial of the offense and lack of remorse (Brooks, 1996; Rudin, 1996; Witt & Barone, 2004).

For the remainder of this study: by Kristen Zgoba, Ph.D.; Philip Witt, Ph.D.; Melissa Dalessandro, M.S.W.; Bonita Veysey, Ph.D., Megan’s Law: Assessing the Practical and Monetary Efficacy (2008).

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