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Expanded Megan's Law offers wider information to parents

By Amy Worden, Inquirer Harrisburg Bureau, Dec. 11, 2006

Megan's Law

Under recent changes to Pennsylvania's Megan's Law, the state police Web site provides more information on thousands of registered sex offenders. The site has been updated with the street address, municipality or prison where the registrant lives. 

Additional information that will be made public soon includes:

A description of the offender, including sex, height, weight, eye color, hair color, race, and any identifying marks, including scars, birthmarks and tattoos. 
A vehicle license-plate number and description. 
The school and its municipality if the offender is a student. 
The municipality of an employer. 
A description of the offense. 
The dates of the offense and conviction. 
Whether the offender is in compliance with registration requirements. 
Whether a victim of the offender was a minor. 


When the Megan's Law Web site went live with information on thousands of registered sex offenders in Pennsylvania nearly two years ago, it offered scant details about the offenders, their crimes, and their place of residence.

Today, under newly enacted changes to the state Megan's Law, the Web site lists exact street addresses of 8,721 registered sex offenders. Soon residents will have access to even more information on the offenders: physical descriptions, license-plate numbers, and whether their crimes were against minors, for example.

One of the law's leading advocates, State Rep. Jennifer Mann (D., Lehigh), said the changes give parents tools to protect their children and help reduce the numbers of sex crimes. 

"Clearly, we continue to see examples across the country and in Pennsylvania of sex abuse against children," Mann said. "Clearly, there were flaws in the existing law, including a Web site that didn't tell much." 

Previously, street addresses were posted only for the smaller number of people (148 currently) classified as sexually violent predators.

Mann and others say the new law, which was approved two weeks ago, brings Pennsylvania in line with the majority of states, which post addresses and provide detailed descriptions of the offenders.

But Cpl. Steven Vesnaver, supervisor in the Megan's Law section of the state police, said Pennsylvania was ahead of other states, including New Jersey, because it now posts information on all of its registered offenders, not just those deemed most dangerous.

The law was named for Megan Kanka, the 7-year-old New Jersey girl who was raped and killed in 1994 by a twice-convicted sex offender who lived across the street.

So far, Megan's Laws have withstood constitutional challenges, but the attorney representing an ex-offender in Pennsylvania has filed two cases seeking to strike down sections of the statute. 

"I expect that many people will be repeatedly forced to move as a result of intimidation, and many others will be rendered homeless,"

said Karl Baker, deputy chief of the appeals division of the
Defender Association of Philadelphia, who fought successfully to have language prohibiting sex offenders from living near schools and day-care centers removed from the bill. 

"This legislation reflects an hysteria that is not rationally based."

Baker compared Megan's Law to New York's Rockefeller drug laws of the early 1970s, which he said ruined many lives and led to overcrowded prisons while doing little to address the problem of drug addiction.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania did not take a position on the proposed changes, but lobbyist Larry Frankel said he thought the legislature should study whether listing information about offenders is effective before adding more to the site.

"The right to know trumps whether this is the most effective public policy," he said.

Studies show that 90 percent of sex crimes against children are committed by someone known to the victims.

Despite initial concerns about vigilantism, state police said they have had only a few complaints from ex-offenders about harassment by neighbors.

Child welfare advocates say concerns about rights of victims outweigh the privacy rights of an offender.

"The fact is there is always potential they will continue to pay a debt they didn't anticipate, but the flip side is the victim of sex assault will live with it for the rest of their lives," said Harrisburg child advocate Cathleen Palm. "You'd be hard-pressed to say that more information is not best for society."

Vesnaver said 90 percent of convicted sex offenders in Pennsylvania registered with the state police, a high rate compared with other states.

A companion bill Gov. Rendell signed into law last month seeks to address the noncompliance issue by increasing the penalty for not registering from a misdemeanor to a felony.

The companion bill also establishes a mandatory minimum 25-year sentence for anyone twice convicted of a Megan's Law crime, and a mandatory life sentence for anyone with a third conviction.

The state legislature will soon have to again amend Megan's Law because of a new federal law aimed at bringing uniformity to the various state Megan's Laws.

Under the Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act, states have three years to meet new requirements, including increasing the number of offenses requiring registration, and stipulating that offenders must verify their whereabouts at least twice a year.

If states do not comply they can lose federal funding for law
enforcement programs.

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