Megan's Law is designed to provide information and notification to communities when potentially dangerous sex offenders moves into the neighborhood. The nature of the notification varies significantly from state to state, and even sometimes from community to community within a state. However, as a result of the system, every state now attempts to keep track of the residence of sex offenders, and to provide information to the public.
The amount of information available to the public can be significantly different, depending upon where you live. Approximately fifteen states put databases online, where residents can search for sex offenders over the Internet by name or zip code. These databases typically produce information about the offenders' last known address and basic information about the crimes they committed. In some cases, results will even include photographs of the offenders. At the other extreme, some jurisdictions require that members of the public go to a designated location such as a police station, where they are given a limited amount of time to review a sex offender database and to take hand-written notes about offenders who concern them.
Similarly, the amount of information relayed by the police to a community changes significantly from state to state. Some states can require sex offenders to place signs in the windows of their residences. Others provide varying levels of notification to schools and neighbors, based upon projections of a sex offender's potential dangerousness. Some states do little but make the state sex offender registry publicly available.
Megan's Laws are named after seven-year-old Megan Kanka, who was kidnapped, sexually assaulted, and murdered by a man who had two prior convictions for sexual offenses. The murderer had moved in across the street from Megan's family, which was unaware of his past history.
A number of concerns have been raised about sex offender registration and notification laws. Most people have concluded that the benefits to the public significantly outweigh any potential downside.
Sex offenders have raised a number of challenges to the nation's various sex offender registration and notification laws, with little success. While the courts do require some level of respect for the rights of a convicted sex offender, the importance of protecting the safety of the public outweighs their right to privacy.
The most commonly raised concern about Megan's Laws relate to fears of vigilantism, when neighbors learn of a sex offender's presence and decide to either drive him out of the neighborhood or cause him physical harm. These fears are not without basis, but to date incidents of vigilantism are not common.
Another concern relates to the fact that Megan's Laws seem to discourage sex offenders from complying with registration laws. While it is typically a felony offense for a sex offender to fail to register his residence as required by law, at least twenty percent of convicted sex offenders do not comply with the registration requirement. By way of comparison, the United Kingdom in 2001, which had no similar law, reported 97% compliance with sex offender registration laws.
A significant practical concern is that children are typically at greatest risk from relatives and from friends of their families, not from strangers. While notification laws and access to sex offender databases may give parents a sense of security, they may distract parents from paying attention to people who pose a potentially greater risk than the offenders on state registries.
Finally, particularly with regard to registries, there is concern that some people who do not pose any danger to the public are included in the registries. For example, some states require registration for statutory rape offenses, even where the offender is close in age to the victim, and the sexual activity was consensual. While society has the right to protect children and teenagers from sexual predation through statutory rape laws, and there is no significant controversy over requiring offenders to register when the victim is significantly younger, there is a legitimate question as to whether every high school student who is convicted of a statutory offense with a younger peer should be named for decades on a public sex offender registry.