Tracking Sex Offenders: The Impact of Megan's Law


Camden resident Sonja Gibson walks with her children, Lael (left), 9, and Lorenzo, 11, to her car after school one day this winter. "What good is that?" Gibson said, reacting to the news that a sex offender-free zone does not apply to registered offenders already living in Camden.


Originally published: January 12, 2007

Many offenders in off-limits areas



Although dozens of New Jersey towns have declared that sex offenders can't live near schools or day care centers, nearly half of the state's most dangerous offenders do, according to a Gannett News Service analysis.

Here in the nation's most densely populated state, 44 percent of the offenders considered most dangerous live within 1,000 feet of a public or private school or a day care center, according to the review of data from the State Police online sex offender registry.

About 79 percent of the offenders live within 2,500 feet of the schools and centers, the greater of two distances many municipalities across the state have adopted as "offender-free" zones.

News of such close quarters can be threatening to parents who worry about child molesters.

"My God. Is that just so scary?" said Karen Goode of Keansburg, commenting on the idea of sex offenders living close to where children learn and play. She has a 12-year-old daughter and three sons, 9, 14 and 20.

In June, Goode's square-mile borough was among the first in the state to adopt an ordinance creating a sex-offender-free zone.

The ordinance bans offenders from living within 1,000 feet of a school, child care center or park. The ordinance would force out renters, allow homeowners to stay, and ban more offenders from moving into the exclusion zones. Pending the outcome of a lawsuit, Keansburg is not enforcing the ordinance.

Some other towns do not force current residents out.

As of early January, the sex offender registry contained the names and addresses of nearly 1,900 sex offenders out of about 11,000 sex criminals known to prosecutors in the state.

These offenders were chosen to be showcased on the Internet by county prosecutors and judges who found them to pose a moderate to high risk of committing another sex crime.

Along with offenders' photos, the site contains brief narratives of the crimes, offering a glimpse into the tactics used: opportunistic pedophiles who used family networks to find children; rapists with knives or guns; burglars who entered kids' bedrooms; and manipulators who plied children with candy or video games.

New Jersey's online registry has had 4.9 million searches since 2002.

The 1994 rape and murder of 7-year-old Megan Kanka by a convicted sex offender living on her street in Hamilton prompted a series of state community notification laws.

But in many towns, residents are seeking more reassurance of their children's safety by asking their governing bodies to restrict where sex offenders may live.

These zones can create a situation in which offenders have few options to live in a particular town.

"Obviously, these people need to live somewhere," said Goode, the Keansburg mother. "But I don't want them in my town."

Critics of Web registries and residency restrictions say such measures offer little more than a feel-good, quick fix to a complex social problem.

Fred Berlin, a Johns Hopkins University psychiatrist who specializes in treating sexual disorders, says many sex offenders want to re-integrate into the community.

"Having their names out there makes it harder to do that," Berlin said. "Is it really making the community safer?"

No, said John S. Furlong, a defense lawyer who has challenged Megan's Law provisions in court.

"Do (Web registries) make people feel better? Do they make politicians feel they're doing something? Of course they do," he said.

But to Laura Ahearn, executive director of the New York-based group Parents for Megan's Law, the registries have lifted "a shroud of secrecy surrounding the sexual victimization of children."

Ahearn says communities are entitled to detailed information about offenders, and sex offenders should be monitored for life.

After their release, convicted New Jersey sex offenders must register with police for 15 years. After that, certain offenders can ask a court to remove the obligation to register.

Studies on recidivism rates vary widely in their conclusions, and advocates disagree on their interpretation. Rates depend in part on how recidivism is measured by arrest or by conviction, for example and the periods of time studied.

One large study published by the Justice Department in 2003 tracked nearly 10,000 sex offenders released in 15 states in the mid-1990s.

Of those, 5 percent were charged with another sex crime within three years.

An earlier Justice Department study found a 14 percent rearrest rate at three years, a 30 percent rate at 10 years and a 52 percent rate at 25 years.

A new study from Washington state found lower rates of re-offense in the years following the passage of sex-offender registration and community notification laws.

In that study, the five-year recidivism rate, based on convictions for felony sex crimes, dropped from 7 percent to 2 percent, when comparing periods before and after key laws were passed.

Nonetheless, some observers worry that policies that make life too hard for sex offenders won't help them stay out of trouble and may do the opposite.

A survey of 135 Florida sex offenders published last year found that residency restrictions added stress and instability to their lives and made them feel isolated, possibly triggering re-offending.

But the study also reviewed a number of residency restrictions and concluded that the effect of such laws on recidivism is largely unknown.

For her part, Goode says she doesn't want a "witch hunt" for sex offenders and doesn't favor public disclosure of cases of older teenagers who've had consensual sex with younger teenagers. Simply, she wants information on "anybody who is looking to have sex with a child."

"I think we have the right to know," Goode said. "Everybody says we're stepping on people's rights. If you molest kids, you have no rights."

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Story index



Exposing loopholes

Megan's mother Maureen Kanka of Hamilton, Office of the Public Defender spokesman Thomas Rosenthal and Manalapan resident Thomas Grande discuss Megan's Law. (Requires QuickTime. Please allow time for stream to begin.)


Sex offenders: How many and where they live

Find out how many convicted sex offenders live in each county and which counties have the most offenders per capita. Also, learn how many sex offenders live nearby your kids' schools. (Requires Flash.)


Zoom in on sex offenders living near you

Click on your township to learn how many convicted sex offenders live in your neighborhood and how serious their crimes are.

Find out more on the Web

You can get more information on the New Jersey Sex Offender Internet Registry. Here you can search by name, town, Zip code or street. (Registration required.)

The National Sex Offender Public Registry is another site where you might be able to learn more about sex offenders living near you.


© 2006, Gannett New Jersey Newspapers and Gannett News Service