Last week, residents of an Eagan neighborhood were the first in Minnesota to face the consequences of a controversial sex offender notification law that took effect in January. Eagan police alerted residents that convicted sex offender Mandell Stamper will be moving into a nearby home when he is released from prison later this month. Stamper belongs to the high-risk category of Level-Three offenders, who are considered most likely to re-offend, most likely to be violent and most likely to have resisted treatment. Although the notification laws are problematic, they do, ultimately, serve the public by empowering neighbors to protect their families from sexual predators.
Some opponents of notification laws have argued that because the laws stigmatize offenders, they prevent former prisoners from getting on with their lives, which may cause them to repeat past criminal behaviors. This objection, however, makes little sense. Notification may indeed cause offenders to have trouble making friends, but people don’t commit sex crimes because they’re not popular. The pathology that leads to sexual deviance is much deeper than that, and won’t be remedied by an invitation to the block party.
The more serious objection to the laws is that the disclosure of offenders’ past crimes to their new neighbors is unfair and constitutes further persecution of people who have already done their time. This valid criticism illustrates the difficulty of enforcing a law designed to balance the rights of offenders with the concern for protecting residents. What benefits one group may burden the other. In one sense, these former prisoners have paid for their crimes by serving out their sentences.
But punishment is not the only measure of justice. Rehabilitation is equally important, and prison terms alone don’t stop the cycle of abuse. The offenders who are subject to neighborhood notification programs are believed to have the highest risk of re-offending. In fact, one study found that 57 percent of Level-Three offenders in notification programs were eventually re-arrested. There is a real risk to communities that these offenders may strike again. With that in mind, the law is intended not to punish past crimes, but to prevent future harm.
Notification programs stem from what are often called “Megan’s laws,” in reference to the 1994 case of 7-year-old Megan Kanka, who was raped and killed in suburban New Jersey. The man accused of her murder is a twice-convicted sex offender who lived across the street from Megan’s home. It has been reported that the accused killer was able to lure Megan into his house by promising to show her a puppy. Often, knowledge is power. Had Megan been warned about her neighbor, her life may have been spared.
Now residents of Eagan can warn their kids to stay away from Stamper. But the law is not a guaranteed safety net. Given the rates of offenders who do commit further crimes, the law’s effectiveness as a preventive measure is uncertain. If an offender is intent on finding a victim, he will. And he may go outside the neighborhood to do so. Although the notification law is an important tool, its protective powers are limited. Nevertheless, if it prevents future tragedies like Megan’s, the law’s benefits will outweigh the discomfort or ostracism that it may cause offenders.