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Megan's Law no deterrent to sex offenders

A study examining sex offenses in the state where Megan's Law was created says it hasn't deterred repeat offenses.

The report released Thursday finds that registering sex offenders in New Jersey does make it easier to find offenders once they are accused of a sex crime.

However, by comparing arrest rates before and after the sex offender registration law was passed, the study found no significant difference between statistics before and after Megan's Law was passed.

The study also compared sex offenders rates with violent crimes and drug offense rates in comparable time periods, and did not find any discrepancy with sex offense rates post-Megan's law.

"Because sex offense rates began to decline well before the passage of Megan's Law, the legislation itself cannot be the cause of the drop in general," said the report, "Megan's Law: Assessing the Practical and Monetary Efficacy," prepared for the Department of Corrections' Research and Evaluation Unit. "It may, in fact, be the case that continuing reductions in sex offending in New Jersey, as well as across the nation, are a reflection of greater societal changes."

According to the authors, measures of recidivism rates, community tenure (the amount of time before a re-arrest), and harm reduction (decreased sexual offending), revealed no significant differences between cohorts.

"Despite wide community support for these laws, there is little evidence to date, including this study, to support a claim that Megan's Law is effective in reducing either new first-time sex offenses or sexual re-offenses," the report states.

The report also said that, because it saw no discernible difference made by implementing Megan's Law, the cost of administrating the law (approximately $3.9 million in 2007) should be reexamined.

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Left: Recidivism Before And After Megan's Law; Re-Arrests For Sex Offense, N.J., By Year.

"Given the lack of demonstrated effect of Megan's Law, the researchers are hard-pressed to determine that the escalating costs are justifiable," they wrote.

New Jersey was among the first states to enact laws requiring community notification and sex offender registration.

The laws are named for Megan Kanka. She was 7 years old when a twice-convicted sex offender who lived near her home raped and killed her in 1994.

The report was conducted by the state Department of Corrections with help from Rutgers University. It was funded by the National Institute of Justice.

Trends In Sex Offenses

The study covered trends in sex offenses over a twenty-one year period before and after Megan's law was enacted; recidivism of 550 sexual offenders released during the years 1990 to 2000; and the costs attributed to implementing and administering Megan's Law.

The report's writers collected rates for sexually based offenses, non-sexually based offenses, and drug offenses for the years 1985 through 2005 from Uniform Crime Report data, in order to construct a comparative trend analysis. ("Offenses" referred to the number of reported arrests.)

The authors noted that while crime rates across the U.S. have been dropping, fluctuations in arrests for sex, drug and violent crimes can be affected by such factors as funding of police, the proliferation of certain drugs, or changes in law enforcement policies, and not just the incidence of offenses.

Among the report's findings:

  • New Jersey, as a whole, experienced a consistent downward trend of sexual offense rates, with a significant change in the trend in 1994 (the year Megan's Law was passed), although the report's writers point to variations in county reporting data which could skew the numbers.
  • Some N.J. counties, which showed a decline in sex offense rates after Megan's Law was passed, showed a large rebound, followed shortly after by a continued decline. The authors suggest the spike in offenses reflects increased surveillance and arrests, rather than increased offending.
  • In the sample of released offenders, there is a consistent downward trend in re-arrests, reconvictions and re-incarcerations over time. However, re-arrests for non-sexual violent crimes (with no corresponding registration program for ex-convicts) also declined steadily over the same period.
  • The men incarcerated for a sex crime were more likely to have been arrested previously for non-sex crimes than sex crimes (65% had a previous arrest for a non-sex crime). Only 27 percent had been previously arrested for a violent crime. On average, offenders were 24.8 years old at the time of their first arrest for a sex crime. Only 6 percent had been arrested as a juvenile for a sex crime.
  • Eighty percent of offenders were serving time for child molestation (21% incest vs. 59% non-incest). Cases of rape and general exhibitionism accounted for 20% and 0.4% of cases, respectively.
  • Most offenders had an established prior relationship with their victims; in only 16% of cases was the perpetrator a stranger. Nearly half (48%) of perpetrators were family members, with the remaining crimes committed by acquaintances (34%) or the victims' partners (2%).
  • Megan's Law has no effect in reducing the number of victims involved in sexual offenses or in the type of offense.
  • Sixty-two percent of offenders denied committing certain aspects of the crime, or denied the sexual offense entirely.
  • 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; in addition, significantly fewer sexual offenders have been paroled after the implementation of Megan's Law than before (largely due to changes in sentencing).
  • The sample of the 550 released offenders revealed some interesting data as well:

  • Most offenders were raised in either a traditional two-parent home (66%) or in a mother-only headed household (23%),
  • The majority of offenders (61%) did not report any history of child abuse. However, 26% reported having experienced sexual abuse as a child.
  • Only 23% of offenders reported some type of past mental health problem, including problems diagnosed in childhood (e.g., emotionally disturbed, developmental disorder) and depression. Thirty-five percent reported receiving mental health treatment in the past.
  • A sizable proportion of offenders had a drug or alcohol abuse history, with 45% reporting a prior drug abuse problem and 47% reporting a prior alcohol abuse problem.

  • For more info:
  • N.J. Department of Corrections, Research and Evaluation Unit producer David Morgan contributed to this article.

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