It’s been nearly two years since Megan Kanka, a 7-year-old New Jersey girl, was raped and strangled to death. She died at the hands of a twice-convicted sex offender who — unbeknownst to anyone in the community — had moved in across the street. Last month, President Clinton signed “Megan’s Law,” making community notification mandatory when a sex criminal is released from prison.
Had such a law been in place several years ago, it’s likely that Megan and countless other victims of sexual assault would still be leading normal, healthy lives. Finally, the balancing act between the rights of victims and victimizers that once prevented public awareness of the criminal potential of their neighbors is undergoing a much-needed shift.
In his weekly radio address on Saturday, President Clinton pledged a national tracking system for sex offenders that would give kids like Megan a fighting chance. Similar bipartisan legislation is making its way through both houses of Congress, but Clinton gave Attorney General Janet Reno 60 days to devise guidelines under which such a system could be implemented. Clinton’s proposal would expand 1994 anti-crime legislation, which required each state to compile a registry of sex offenders, to the federal level.
Clinton said, “The law should follow those who prey on America’s children wherever they go, state to state, town to town.” He’s right: A mere change of location does not calm the criminal mind, and that change should not prohibit any necessary enforcement. In the interests of personal safety, and the ability of parents to protect their children, the whereabouts of child abusers should be made public.
Critics of the proposal point to a likely violation of a convict’s right to privacy. And forcing sex offenders to submit to post-release surveillance would arguably amount to additional punishment, which is unconstitutional. But a 15-year California study showed that 19.7 percent of sex offenders were later arrested for another sex crime. Other studies put that number as high as 30 percent. The rehabilitative mission of prisons is not being accomplished; obviously, more is needed to stifle the recidivist nature of sex offenders.
A national registry is the logical next step. Over the weekend, Clinton told the U.S. Conference of Mayors, “We cannot jail our way out of this crisis. We have to find a way to change the culture of America.” The deterrent qualities of the proposal — convicts may be less likely to offend again if a registry would make their apprehension easier — deserve consideration. Most importantly, a registry could provide law enforcement officials with a simple, but powerful, weapon: knowledge.
Clinton’s efforts, to be sure, are part of a pre-election blitzkrieg to make the president appear tough on crime. But we are hesitant to stand in the way of a proposal that is both reasonable and overdue. Regardless from which side of the aisle these ideas originated, they are intended to protect the nation’s children — an issue as nonpartisan as they come.