'Megan's Law' and other forms of sex-offender legislation
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Advice on legislation or legal policy issues contained in this paper is provided for use in parliamentary debate and for related parliamentary purposes. This paper is not professional legal opinion.
Briefing Paper No. 22/1999 by Rachel Simpson
- Megan's Law' refers to the series of laws introduced in New Jersey following the murder of seven year-old Megan Kanka who was kidnapped, raped and murdered by her neighbour, a twice convicted sex offender who had committed a similar crime only months before. The term Megan's Law' has become an umbrella term for all community notification laws or laws which authorise the release to the public of identifying information about convicted sex-offenders. Since the release on parole of John Lewthwaite, who was convicted in 1974 of the horrific murder of five year-old Nicole Hanns, there have been increasing calls for a Megan's Law' to be introduced in NSW.
- Megan's Law' schemes comprise registration and notification. The options for registration are discussed in pages 2 to 4. Registration may be official, such as the Australian Bureau of Criminal Intelligence national database on child sex offenders, or unofficial such as the book published by Deborah Coddington in 1997, The Australian Paedophile and Sex Offender Register Index. Unofficial registers are considered potentially misleading and damaging by the Royal Commission into the New South Wales Police Service (the Royal Commission).
- When establishing a registration and notification scheme, a number of factors must be considered. In relation to registration these factors are: definitional issues (for example what definition of child sex-offender should be employed - the psychiatric or criminal definition); coverage and scope of information collected; and retrospectivity. In relation to notification, the factors are: degree of notification (broad community notification, notification to individuals or organisations at risk or restricted access to registration information), and scope, form and content of notification - who is responsible for the notification, what information the notification should contain and who should receive the notification. These factors are discussed in pages 4 to 9.
- Arguments for and against registration and notification are discussed in pages 9 to 12. Arguments for registration/notification include the public's right to know, the deterrent effect on an offender of knowing he or she is being monitored, and the benefit to victims of knowing their abuser is being monitored. Arguments against registration/notification include the inconsistency of such laws with society's goal of protecting individual liberties, the false sense of security such schemes can foster, encouraging a vigilante mentality towards offenders, inadvertent disclosure of the identity of victims, the cost of such schemes which may be better used in prevention and/or rehabilitation programs and the ease with which such schemes can be defeated by the non-cooperation of the offender.
- A registration scheme was recommended by the Victorian Parliament's Crime Prevention Committee in 1995. The features of this scheme are discussed in pages 12 to 14. At this stage, these recommendations have not been implemented. The operation of Megan's Law schemes in the United States is discussed in pages 14 to 26. The United Kingdom approach is discussed in pages 17 to 18, and Canada's system in pages 18 to 19.
- The recommendations of the Royal Commission in relation to the establishment of a registration/notification scheme - the introduction of a compulsory registration scheme for convicted child sex offenders and a controlled discretion by the Police Service to issue warnings to relevant government departments agencies and community groups - are noted in pages 19 to 20.