Megan's Law Won't Reduce Sex Crimes

The key is longer sentences without parole.

By Alice Vachss
Originally published in The New York Times, July 31, 1995

Megan's Law probably would have saved Megan Kanka's life. The 7-year-old girl lived in quiet Hamilton Township in New Jersey. Her killer was a neighbor, on parole for frightening, ugly crimes. Had there been a law in New Jersey a year ago requiring that communities be alerted to sex offenders in their midst, residents would have taken precautions. Parents would have kept their babies away from him.

Under pressure and lacking access to children, he might well have moved to a larger community where he could be more anonymous. Most likely he would have killed a city child.

In 1994 residents of the San Francisco Bay area protested when a notorious rapist was to be paroled there. They were so vocal that Gov. Pete Wilson promised to send him "out in the wilderness someplace"—and the rapist ended up in a work camp in a remote town with a small college. In 1993 a town in the Pacific Northwest with a notification law became famous when someone torched a child molester's home. The townspeople rid themselves of that particular sex offended. But … he relocated.

The constitutionality of notification laws has been the topic of self-serving debate, a glitter-wrapped opportunity both for the politicians who support the idea, and the urban liberal-left that oppose it. Last week the New Jersey Supreme Court upheld Megan's law, which requires that the public be notified about dangerous sex offenders, and Gov. George E. Pataki signed similar legislation in New York.

It may well be a permissible condition of parole to limit the anonymity of sex offenders. And it's a legitimate goal of a community to rid itself of criminals. But even if notification laws were universal, they are not nearly enough to protect our children.

To control the violent and dangerous, we need longer actual prison sentences and greater and more consistent enforcement. According to the most recent Bureau of Justice report, the national average sentence for convicted violent felons was less than eight years, of which they already served less than four in prison.

We already have proof that the act of notification is not enough: the 1990 National Campus Security Act, known as the Clery law, which requires universities to disclose their crime statistics. Like the Kankas, Constance and Howard Clery lost a daughter—Jeanne, a student at Lehigh University— to a murderer's rage.

Compliance with the new act has been uneven to say the least. Even so, the first year's statistics showed 7,500 incidents of violence at American universities. But if the result is that we transfer our children from colleges that disclose crimes to those that under-report them, then the Clerys wasted their time pushing for the law.

Campuses are genuine communities, and can teach us certain fundamental principles about what we need to know and do about violence.

One, it does not go away if we try and ignore it—it flourishes in the dark. Two, the criminal justice system, processes criminals. By itself it does little to nothing about crime.

Three, inadequate policing, security and investigation are dangerous. Four, for consequences to serve as a deterrent, they must be predictable, consistent and timely. And finally, crime cannot be sanctioned selectively because the perpetrator was an athlete or a fraternity member or the victim was unsympathetic. The more we tolerate "gray areas" of violence—hazing, "domestic" abuse, date rape—the more parents we will ne notifying about crime.

Community notification is useless if all it provides is more accurate body counts, or names to accompany the numbers for our statistics. There are two fundamental questions: What do we have a right to know? And what will we do with that knowledge? If we do not use the knowledge we already have, more of our children will die.

Alice Vachss, former chief of the Special Victim's Bureau of the Queens District Attorney's office, is the author of "Sex Crimes."