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Community Notification Laws (Megan's Law)

In the wake of a young boy's kidnapping and murder at the hands of a sexual predator, Congress passed the Jacob Wetterling Act in 1994. This federal law provided law enforcement authorities with the means to track and locate convicted sex offenders. It required states to create sex offender registries and set up registration requirements. The goal was to give local police the ability to access information about sex offenders living in the community.

The law established a category of offenders called "sexually violent predators." These offenders would register for life and update their addresses with the police department every 90 days. It also gave law enforcement the authority to notify the public as needed about the release of certain offenders.

In 1996, Congress amended the Wetterling Act by passing the federal version of "Megan's Law." In 1994, the rape and murder of seven-year-old Megan Kanka by a known sex offender raised public demand for sex offender registration. It also raised a demand for community notification of registration information. Megan died some thirty yards from her own front door in Hamilton Township, New Jersey. A neighbor lured the little girl to his house, promising she could see his new puppy. He was a twice-convicted sex offender who had served time in prison. His crimes included attempted sexual assault against a child in 1979 and a second similar offense in 1981.

Advocates argued that community notification may have prevented Megan's death. With notification, her family could have learned about the sex offender nearby. They could have kept Megan safe. National momentum grew for improvements to sex offender registration laws. Public safety concerns about child sex crimes led to mandates for community notification.

Megan's law directed each state to set up its own community notification system. It mandated the release of certain sex offender information to the public.

Community notification laws are now commonly associated with sex offender registration laws. Many states provide public access websites to assist citizens with locating sex offenders who live nearby. State laws vary in the amount and type of information released to the public.

What follows is an overview of community notification laws. This article covers the development of such laws and how they work. It discusses their effectiveness and provides state-specific examples.

Development of Megan's Law

The outcry over Megan's death in 1994 spurred the New Jersey Legislature to act. Within three months, New Jersey passed the community notification law known as Megan's Law. Less than two years later, President Clinton signed a federal version of the law. An amendment to the Wetterling Act, Megan's Law required each state to provide public notification and information about sexual offenders living in the area when needed to protect the public. The resulting state laws became known as Megan's Laws.

In New Jersey, the first state to adopt Megan's Law, the law created the following:

  • A state registry of sex offenders
  • An internet website registry
  • A community notification procedure

New Jersey gave county prosecutors the authority to place sex offenders in one of three categories for notification purposes. The basis of the categories relates to the risk of re-offense. The law required the state attorney general to develop guidelines and procedures leading to uniform application of the law. The law set forth what sex offense convictions required registration. In New Jersey, a sex offender can challenge the county prosecutor's determination to place a sex offender in a particular tier. The state must support its risk assessment and placement with clear and convincing evidence.

Each state's version of Megan's Law will vary in its procedures and registration protocols. In 2006, Congress passed the Sex Offender Registration and Notification Act (SORNA). This legislation was part of the Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act that same year. SORNA set minimum standards in state sex offender registration and notification laws.

How Sex Offender Registration Requirements Work

Sex offender registration requirements vary by state but share common characteristics. Convicted sexual offenders must register with their local law enforcement or corrections agency. Most often, the offender must register their address with the chief law enforcement officer of the county, including their residence, school, and place of employment. In many states, this would be the county sheriff's office.

Reporting agencies forward registration information to a central location. This may be the state police or the state bureau of investigation. Information includes the offender's name, address, date of birth, social security information, physical description, fingerprints, and photographs. Some states also gather detailed conviction information and samples for DNA identification.

A court or registering agency will provide a written notice informing offenders of their registration duty. Offenders must register within days of their release from prison or placement on supervision. Placement on the registry lasts 10 or 15 years in many states. The law can require lifetime registration, particularly if an offender ranks as a "sexual predator." This can also occur when an offender gets convicted of a subsequent sex offense. Juvenile offenders may also face registration requirements when their adjudication stems from sex offenses requiring registration. For example, in Ohio, the sex offender notification law includes two types of offenders:

  1. Sex offenders (when the offense is a sex crime or the offense is committed with a sexual motivation)
  2. Child-victim offenders (when no sexual motivation is required, but the offender's victim was a child)

From there, the state breaks down three tiers of reporting requirements. The tier system is consistent with the mandates of the Adam Walsh Act. The tiers relate to the criminal convictions of the offenders. Tier III offenders must register every 90 days for life. They rate as high risk for re-offense. Tier II offenders must register every 180 days for 25 years. They align with a moderate risk of re-offense. Tier I offenders must register every 12 months for 15 years. They may be at low risk for re-offense. Judges have some discretion on the duration of registration requirements for juvenile delinquents who have been adjudicated as sex offenders.

In Ohio, the duty to provide community notification relates only to Tier III offenders or those designated "habitual offenders" or "sexual predators" under previous laws. Tier III offenders have committed the most serious crimes or have convictions for more than one sex offense. When community notification applies, the sheriff must inform several people in the region. This includes schools and daycare centers. It also includes the police chief of any municipality in the area where the offender lives, attends school, or works. If the offender lives in a multi-unit building, it often means all the residents of the building.

Each state sets forth its own criteria for crimes related to each risk level. Crimes involving sexual conduct with a child, such as rape and sexual battery, are more likely to fall under Tier III, the most serious or high-risk level. Distributing or possessing child pornography may fall under Tier II or Tier I based on the circumstances and the state law involved.

According to SafeHome.org, as of February 2023, there are over 786,000 registered sex offenders in state registries in the United States. The FBI maintains a website with links to all state sex offender registry sites.

Consequences for Failing to Register

In most jurisdictions, failing to register or to register a change of address is a crime itself. It can return a sex offender to the criminal justice system.

For example, under California law, a sex offender who willfully fails to register their address will face criminal charges corresponding to the degree of their original sex offense. If the registration requirement was for a misdemeanor sex offense or juvenile adjudication, then the crime of failing to register is likewise a misdemeanor. The offender will face up to one year in jail. If the registration requirement was for a felony sex offense or juvenile adjudication, then the crime of failing to register will be a felony. The offender will face up to three years in prison.

In most jurisdictions, any conviction for a new crime while on probation or parole may lead to charges of a probation or parole violation. As a result, a court could impose any suspended prison sentence.

State Policies on Releasing Information

Every state has a sex offender registry. Yet, states vary in how they release information to the public and on the information subject to release. Some states require interested citizens to access registry information at their local law enforcement agencies. Many states, like Iowa, permit everyone online access to information about any person on its sex offender registry. Searches can occur by the offender's name, geographic location, or the offender's or victim's gender. Iowa provides photos, physical descriptions, addresses, and details of convictions.

Law enforcement authorities may also have the obligation to disseminate information about registered sex offenders. There may be several groups to notify. They will notify prior victims, neighbors, and schools. They may also reach out to youth organizations and other relevant groups. In some cases, community-wide notification is necessary. Newspapers, television, radio, and community meetings are some methods used to provide community notification.

Many states provide websites and FAQs to help answer citizens' questions. For example, you can find information on Michigan's sex offender registration and notification laws here.

Criticism of Megan's Law and Sex Offender Registries

Critics of sex offender registries claim that they do little to protect most victims of sexual offenses. They claim most victims know their attacker. According to the Department of Justice, about seven of every 10 female rape or sexual assault victims reported that the perpetrator was someone they knew. This may be an intimate partner, relative, friend, or acquaintance.

Others have questioned the impact of sex offender registries on the lives of inmates released back into the community. The easy access to conviction information can result in difficulties finding work. It can also lead to harassment by neighbors or other members of the community. The U.S. Supreme Court has addressed the constitutionality of sex offender registries. In Connecticut Department of Safety v. Doe and Smith v. Doe, decided in 2003, the Court found that sex offender registries do not violate sex offenders' constitutional rights.

Want To Know More About Community Notification Laws? Talk to an Attorney

Community notification laws impose reporting requirements on certain convicted sex offenders. Yet, these laws can vary by state. If you have a criminal history, you must ensure that you comply with the law. This includes any registration requirements. You can do so by speaking with a criminal defense lawyer in your area. An experienced attorney can provide legal advice on the laws of your state.

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