Sex crimes against children have been in the news recently, most prominently accusations against former Penn State football coach Jerry Sandusky and Syracuse assistant basketball coach Bernie Fine.
Claims that the men abused boys for years made the news largely because they are affiliated with high-profile college athletics. But the accused men are very typical of most sex offenders in one important way: neither appears on any sex offender registry (required by legislation known as Megan’s Law) because they are not convicted sex offenders.
The public widely believes that Megan’s Laws protect children by alerting parents and teachers to those individuals most likely to abuse children, but the opposite is true. The fact is that the vast majority of people who physically and sexually abuse children are not convicted sex offenders and therefore are not covered under public notification laws.
There’s simply no evidence that Megan’s Laws work — and considerable evidence that they don’t.
A research study for the Department of Justice by the New Jersey Department of Corrections titled “Megan’s Law: Assessing the Practical and Monetary Effect” concluded, “Despite widespread community support for these laws, there is virtually no evidence to support their effectiveness in reducing either new first-time sex offenses (through protective measures or general deterrence) or sex re-offenses (through protective measures and specific deterrence).”
The first section of the two-part study examined sex offenses in each of New Jersey’s counties, and the state as a whole over the course of 21 years; it also studied data on 550 sex offenders released between 1990 and 2000.
The study concluded that “Megan’s Law has no effect on community tenure (i.e., time to first re-arrest); Megan’s Law has no effect on the type of sexual re-offense or first time sexual offense; and that Megan’’s Law has no effect on reducing the number of victims involved in sexual offenses.”
Indeed, as Michael Buncher, deputy public defender in the state Office of the Public Defender in charge of the Special Hearings Unit noted,
This study is not alone; so far all the research has consistently shown that Megan’s Laws have little or no effect; they don’t protect children. Even worse, they’re expensive: the study found that implementing the notification laws cost taxpayers in each county about a half a million dollars to start, and approximately $4 million annually.
The panic over sex offenders distracts the public from a far greater threat to children: parental abuse and neglect. The vast majority of crimes against children are committed not by released sex offenders, but instead by the victim’s own family, church clergy, and family friends.
It’s not that some released sex offenders don’t strike again — a minority do, just like all other criminals — but instead that if you use Megan’s Laws as a guide to who’s likely to abuse children, statistically you will be wrong most of the time.
According to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, “based on what we know about those who harm children, the danger to children is greater from someone they or their family knows than from a stranger.”
If lawmakers and the public are serious about wanting to protect children, they should not be misled by “stranger danger” myths and instead focus on the much larger threat inside the home.