Social Policy For Sex Offenders
Children’s protection and safety has become a prominent legislative issue of the 90s and for the millennium. It appears that more and more legislation will continue to be introduced and passed for the best interest of children. The goal is to stop crime against our children in this generation, but for some children it is too late: Anthony Martinez, Polly Klaas, Megan Kanga, the children we did not read about and, unfortunately, those we will be reading about. This paper will discuss Megan’s law (See Appendix A), which requires the registration and notification to communities of released sex offenders.
Child abuse legislation proved to be an agenda leader for two other sets of issues: those relating to child care and those relating to personal violence. Child abuse, especially sexual, has infused parents and communities with renewed moral outrage and provided intellectual and political connections to long-standing issues, such as child safety and protection. But perhaps more interestingly, crime legislation gave legitimacy and currency to the consideration of the allied issues of violence, autonomy, and physical safety, including the sexual abuse of children, domestic violence and rape ( Nelson, 1984).
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Bierker (1989) defined sexual abuse as a sexual activity perpetrated on a child by an older person through coercion. The child lacks the emotional and physical maturity to resist what amounts to abuse of the older person’s position of authority and power. Abuse, by definition, causes pain to the child at the time of the abuse and, unless the abuse is disclosed and dealt with, later in his or her life. In recent high profile cases, the children all appeared to have been sexually abused before they were murdered.
Sexual abuse of a child generally moves through increasingly intimate activity. Perpetrators carefully plan not only the abuse, but also arrange for a private place to do it. Parents often give the perpetrator access to their child unwittingly. For example, they may allow their child to engage in group activities which are lead by an unknown perpetrator. Megan’s Law seeks to identify known pedophiles and allow parents to inform and teach their children to avoid these offenders.
Sexual offenders are a large and growing part of the prison population. In 1980 state prisons held 20, 500 sex offenders; in 1990 there were 63,600; and in 1994 their were 88, 100. They grew not only in number, but also as a percentage of an expanding state prison population: 6.9 percent of 295,819 inmates in 1980; 9.7 percent of 906, 112 in 1994. In 1991, at least 20 percent of the adult prison population in ten states were sex offenders.
Community in-patient and out-patient programs specializing in treating sex offenders have proliferated. Still, it appears that relatively few incarcerated sex offenders actually receive treatment. There is insufficient research to establish consistent estimates of recidivism or to identify effective treatments ( Department of Justice, statistics, 1996).
The current climate is severely punitive. Many citizens’ approach is to lock-up all the criminals and never release them. The public seems determined to prevent these individuals from committing new crimes no matter the cost. As a result, by August, 1995, 43 states had enacted statutes requiring offenders to register with a central agency or with a law enforcement agency located in the community into which they are released.
In late July 1994, seven-year-old Megan Kanka was raped and strangled to death. Such tragedies are periodically reported in our daily periodical across the country, but the difference here was that Megan’s killer lived across the street from the Kanka family in Hamilton Township, New Jersey. Further, the neighbor had served time in Avenel, a facility for sex offenders in New Jersey. The man had been convicted of molesting children twice previously, but the community knew nothing of his background.
Megan’s parents and neighbors learned of Jesse Timmendequa’s history only after he was arrested on July 30, 1994, and had confessed to the murder. Megan’s parents, Richard and Maureen Kanka, and their neighbors organized and angrily confronted their city council as to why they were not informed as to the establishment of this “house for sex offenders” in their family-oriented community. They demanded that the laws be changed so as allow communities to protect themselves from released sex offenders.
Jansson defines policy practice as “efforts to influence the development, enactment, implementation, or assessment of social policies” through the utilization of policy practice skills (which he identifies as analytic, political, interactional, and value-clarification), and the performance of policy practice tasks (setting agendas, defining problems, making proposals, enacting policy, implementing policy, and assessing policy) (Jansson, 1994).
With the fall elections approaching, and several Republican anti-crime initiatives stalled in the Senate, Republicans pushed four bills through the House on May 7, 1995 to crack down on sex offenders, witness tampering, stalkers and those who prey on children and the elderly.
The Senate cleared the bill (HR 2137) on sex offenders by voice vote May 9, 1995, and President Clinton signed the bill into law. Republicans were hoping that the bills, which dealt with relatively small issues, would resonate with the public and help their party in November. They spotlighted members that were facing tough reelection campaigns as sponsors of three bills. The sexual offender bill was sponsored by Dick Zimmer, Republican from New Jersey, who was in a tight race for the senate seat being vacated by Bill Bradley. The House debate began on an emotional note, and members quickly passed legislation that would require states and localities to inform communities when dangerous sexual offenders were released from prison. The vote was 418-0 . (See Appendix B).
The 1994 crime bill (Pub. L 103-322) requires sex offenders to register their address with local police, and it allows this information to be publicized to preserve safety. The House bill sought to make release of this information mandatory. States that did not comply could lose part of their federal crime fighting funds.
The bill also would change a section of the crime law that required states to classify as private all information collected when registering sexual offenders. The bill would allow each state to determine what information is private and what is public (Congressional Quarterly, May 11, 1996).
President Clinton strongly supported the bills respecting crimes against children and the elderly. On May 17, 1996, he signed Megan’s Law. He has been an advocate for children since he was governor of Arkansas. The following is an except from the ceremony that took at the White House:
“This has been a week in which our country is moving to combat crime and violence. A couple of days ago we awarded over 9, 000 new police officers to some 2,500 communities. That brings us to 43,000 police officers in 20 months along the road to our goal of 100,000. We’re ahead of schedule and under budget.”
“But today, the valiant presence of five American parents reminds us that this fight against crime is so much more a fight for peace and for safety for our people and especially for our children.”
“I thank the Congress for passing it. I thank those who led the fight. And I thank these families more than anything else. God Bless you all.” (See Appendix C).
The Jacob Wetterling Crimes against Children and Sexually Violent Offender Registration Act provides a financial incentive for states to establish effective registration systems for released child molesters and other sexually violent offenders. States that fail to establish conforming registration systems will be subjected to a 10 percent reduction of formula Byrne Grant funding, and resulting surplus funds will be reallocated to states that are in compliance. Unlike Megan’s Law, the Jacob Wetterling Act permitted, but did not require, states to release registration information to the extent necessary to protect the public.
In California, state legislation implementing Megan’s Law was passed in September of 1996 (AB 1562 ). The California Department of Justice issued policy and training procedures for local law enforcement agencies directing implementation of Megan’s Law beginning in July, 1997. As of July, 1997, any citizen can request from their local law enforcement agency, a CD ROM containing information, including photographs, of sexual offenders released into the local community. Police and parole agents will be required to notify the community of sexual offenders residing in the neighborhood. In California, Governor Wilson has attempted to go further still, proposing that sex offenders be required to register for life.
The rationale underlying such laws is simple: identify all convicted and released sexual offenders, and the community will be able to take action to protect themselves. Notification, according to some, “could prevent some tragedies from happening again.” Notification is also expected to improve public safety because the public will be able to identify and report risky behavior by sex offenders (e.g. conversing with children, buying sex-oriented magazines) that might escalate into criminal behavior if ignored.
The effectiveness of notification probably depends to a considerable degree on the provisions of the state statute, the resources that states and localities are able and willing to provide for implementing the statute, and the dedication and expertise of probation officers, police officers and prosecutors. Notification is most likely to be effective if it is accompanied by extensive community education and carried out by specialist. ( Finn, 1997)
Agenda setting stage. Laws regarding sexual abuse came into being in the late 1970s as professionals and the public became aware of the prevalence of this form of child abuse. Since that time, the legal framework has developed dramatically in response to vicious crimes against children. Perhaps no type of crime has received more attention in recent years than crimes against children involving sexual acts and violence. Several recent tragic cases have focused public attention on this type of crime and resulted in public demand that government take stronger action against those who commit those crimes. Specifically, it was the murder of a little girl at the hands of this “unidentified” sex offender that served the purpose of getting legislators’ and the public’s attention.
A victim of sexual abuse himself, Mark J. Welsh argued that identifying offenders would protect children and help prevent molesters from abusing again. Further, he argued that molesters would be recognized everywhere they went, and no one would allow them to be near children. There was no real opposition to this argument— the laws had to be changed.
Another important component of the agenda setting stage is the political demand exerted by large voting constituencies and lobbyists. Children do not vote, but parents, relatives, teachers, grass roots organizations, the Child Welfare League of America, and others do strongly represent them in the political arena. In the case of Megan’s Law, support was bipartisan and unanimous. Further, Congress passed Title VII of the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994 (Public Law 103-322). That law, entitled the “Jacob Wetterling Crimes Against Children and Sexually Violent Offender Registration Act,” encouraged states to establish a system where every person who commits a sexual or kidnapping crime against children or who commits sexually violent crime against any person (whether adult or child) would be required to register his address upon release from prison. As further protection, the 1994 Act required states to allow law enforcement agencies to release “relevant information” about an offender as necessary to protect the public (Columbia Law, 1995).
This community notification provision has been the subject of considerable controversy. Megan’s Law has been challenged by civil libertarians as a violation of sex offenders’ constitutional rights. However, Megan’s Law has thus far survived court challenges. Yet, this has not stopped the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), a legal organization dedicated to defending the Constitution, from attacking the constitutionality of notification requirements.
The ACLU and others argue that it is unconstitutional to treat sex offenders differently from other violent criminals. Further, the ACLU argues, most sex offenses are committed by people we are not aware are dangerous: friends and relatives and others we do not know about. Community notification tends to generate hysteria about a small group of people for a short period of time. It does not solve the problem, it merely moves ex-offenders around as they are driven from community to community.
Moreover, although the ostensible purpose of notification is to permit citizens to take precautions to protect themselves, these laws tend to encourage a state of anxiety which is not helpful to rationally addressing the issue. They also tend to encourage vigilantism. In Washington state, a a released child molester, who had presumedly paid his debt to society, was himself a victim of death threats, assaults and the burning of his home by enraged residents who took the law into their own hands (ACLU, press release, August, 19, 1994).
In addition, critics aruge, this law often treats gay men as child molesters and rapists. Years ago, gay men were routinely arrested on felony lewd conduct charges. These were people who were basically engaging in consensual sex with other adults. Although Megan’s Law ostensibly targets sexual predators, the gay community fears that persons arrested for being gay will be identified as sex offenders.
Problem defining stage. The problem is whether all released sex offenders should register or not. Different states have relied on different methods of developing notification criteria and as a result, have come up with different criteria. The focus is on developing guidelines for classifying offenders according to the risk they present (low, moderate, high). States have adopted varying criteria to be employed in this classification process. These include the seriousness of the offense, offense history, characteristics of the offender and community support.
Proposal writing stage. The bill was included as a special provision in the Federal Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994 (the “Act”). At the time it was probably written from an ecological perspective due to Megan’s brutal death and the elections. The bill does potentially “sweep up” too many people.
Policy enacting stage. Congressmen Zimmer and the Republican party seized upon Megan’s death to raise an issue during an election year that no one could possibly oppose: protecting neighborhoods from persons likely to commit heinous sexual crimes. Such conditions encourage politicians to introduce bills that are supported by little, if any, responsible research.
In my research for this paper, I spoke to Mr. Greg O’Gorman, an aide to Senator Feinstein. He confirmed the obvious: no politician would oppose Megan’s Law because no one wanted to be identified with sexual offenders. Furthermore, he reported that Senator Feinstein has introduced a bill that will “lock up” a sexual offenders convicted twice of sexual crimes. He stated that the senator has received no opposition from her colleagues. It is unknown if she consulted with mental health practitioners, social workers, or other professionals in order to determine the efficacy of her bill or alternatives to incarceration, such as treatment to prevent recidivism.
The policy implementing stage. Law enforcement agencies, parole agents, and other designated practitioners are being directed to enforce Megan’s Law. Each state is implementing Megan’s Law differently. For example, in California all sex offenders—whether adult or juvenile—must register. Communities will be notified of adults classified as “high risk” or “serious” sex offenders. (See Appendix D). There are 70,000 sex offenders in California. It is uncertain how many of these will eventually be classified as “high risk” or “serious” offenders.
Policy assessing stage. The ACLU and Lambda Legal Defense and Education fund (LLDEF) have joined together to challenge this law on constitutional grounds. The ACLU and LLDEF argue that in many cases notification does more harm than good. They conclude that if information is to be disclosed publicly, it must be limited to that necessary to counteract the offender’s dangerousnous. ( ACLU, press release, August 19, 1994).
Still, Megan’s Law is being implemented. In Placencia, California, police notified the community that a twice-convicted child molester, Sid Landau, was residing in their community. The community responded by organizing demonstrations in front of his residence. Some threatened him. Mr. Landau had to obtain legal representation in an attempt to stop the harassment. According to his lawyer, T. Matthew Phillips, Mr. Landau has been through “hell.” He argues that his client has been unfairly singled-out, that he paid for his crimes and should not be permitted to reenter society.
Detective Corinne Loomis of the Placencia Police Department had hoped that people would eventually accept that Mr. Landau and others like him are going to be living in the community, and to appreciate that the best response is be aware and protective. That is what Megan’s Law was designed to do,” she said. “It was not designed to whip people into frenzy and have them run somebody out on a rail” (L.A. Times, 3-8-97). On April 25, 1997, Sid Landau was arrested for assaulting a cameraman who was following him.
In another case, an 18-year-old male from Wisconsin was convicted of a “lewd act with a minor.” He faces 40 years in prison and, if convicted, he will have to register as a sex offender for life. This young man’s crime was having consensual sex with his 15-year-old girlfriend. The girlfriend got pregnant, and the young man dropped out of school in order to marry and support the girl. A social worker reported this case to the prosecutor’s office, and he was charged and convicted. The young man has the support of his community and plans to appeal his conviction.
In this section I disucss two interviews I conducted regarding Megan’s Law. I could have interviewed anyone because we will all be involved with this law: law enforcement, which will be responsible for notifying citizens, as well as average citizens who happen to live in communities into which sex offenders are released.
1) Jacqueline Waltman – Parole agent, California Department of Corrections. Ms. Waltman supervises adult parolees in the San Fernando Valley.
2) Gail Blucher – Mother and President of the local Parents and Teachers Association (PTA). Ms. Blucher is resident of the Santa Clarita Valley.
Ms. Waltman does not agree with Megan’s Law as it is written. Although she will be obliged to enforce it, she believes that many sex offenders will go “underground” in order to avoid registration requirements. Once underground, Ms. Waltman argues, these individuals will be more likely to molest more children. Further, she believes that a state of anxiety will be created in the communities encouraging the growth of vigilante groups. She believes her job will be more difficult as a result of supervising parolees in a community that is openly hostile to the parolees’ presence.
She recognizes that the Department of Corrections does not provide sex offenders with effective therapy, if it provides any at all. Moreover, she stated that many sex offenders are warned by prison guards not to disclose their crime to fellow inmates so as not to provoke attacks upon themselves. Therefore, many do not request therapy during incarceration.
Parole agent Waltman believes that sex offenders cannot be rehabilitated and should remain in prison for the rest of their lives. She nevertheless hopes that they can be treated and rehabilitated. She stated that her priority will always be the safety and protection of children. Jacqueline Waltman works part-time for the Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services at the Emergency Response Command Post (ERCP). She worked full-time for more than twenty years for the same department.
Mrs. Blucher is a full-time homemaker and she is very involved in her seven-year-old daughter’s extracurricular activities. She is married. She has recently gotten involved with the “neighborhood watch” community program that works with the local sheriff’s department.
Mrs. Blucher is anxiously anticipating Megan’s Law. She believes, quite obviously, that children need a safe neighborhood, and supports notification . However, she stated that she could not participate in “evicting” anyone from her neighborhood, but did not want sex offenders to live anywhere near her family. She strongly believes that sex offenders never change. She stated that the criminal justice system releases criminals too early, especially sex offenders. She supports Assemblyman Bob Margett’s (R-Arcadia) bill requiring that convicted child molesters wear electronic monitoring bracelets upon their release from prison. (I contacted the Assemblyman’s office regarding this bill. His aide reported that the bill passed without any opposition).
She is looking forward to working with the “neighborhood watch” program to make children aware that her house is a designated safe house and that they are allowed to request assistance if they needed too.
LETTER TO EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR RAMONA RIPSTON- ACLU
15920 Calle El Capitan
Green Valley, CA 91350
Ms. Ramona Ripston
American Civil Liberties Union
1616 Beverly Blvd.
Los Angeles, California, 90026
April 24, 1997
Dear Ms. Ripston
My name is Xiomara Flores-Holguin and I am a graduate social work student at the University of Southern California. I am writing you in support of the American Civil Liberties Union, Southern California chapter’s position on Megan’s Law.
I agree with the ACLU’s argument that notifying communities of sex offenders’ presence may cause more harm than good.
First, released sex offenders are going to live somewhere. I am concerned about “not-in-my-backyard” vigilantism that will encouraged if citizens are not properly educated on bounds of appropriate action to take when notified of the presence of a sex offender in their communities.
Second, there is little evidence that the Department of Corrections addresses the problem when the sex offenders are in prison. They cannot reassure society that these sex offenders are rehabilitated because they do not provide them any treatment.
Also, we cannot forget that many former “sex offenders” have never presented a threat to society. I refer to gay people convicted of lewd acts for engaing in consensual sex with other adults. Will Megan’s Law require that these victims of homophobia be identified as “sex offenders” living in our midst?
I wanted to express my appreciation and gratitude to the American Civil Liberties Union for your ongoing work in defending the Constitution of ALL people, whether we like them or not.
Thurgood Marshall once asked, “Mental health and the law – what if anything do they have in common?” He responded that both are concerned with the aspirations and problems of the human condition, and both deal with human rights and human responsibilities.
Let us continue in our commitment to work on behalf of ALL people. Thank you.
M. Xiomara Flores-Holguin
MSW Graduate Student
At the beginning of this assignment, I believed that I had a strong position as to Megan’s Law and felt that this law was almost perfect. However, as a social worker, I recognized that the law was supported by little empirical research. I realize that no policy analysis is ever complete, that it is impossible to discover all of the data (data are essentially infinite) and to ask all of the possible questions. Policy analysis is always an approximation of the ideal and, as such, decisions are always made on the basis of incomplete data (Karger & Stoesz, 1994).
Karger and Stoesz (1994) argue that despite a nominal reliance on an analytical framework, social policy analysis in the “real world” is to some degree always biased. Because policy is analyzed by human beings, it is always done through the mirror of the analyst’s value system, ideological beliefs, and particular understanding of the goals and purposes of social welfare. Subjectivity is reflected in the omission (conscious or otherwise) of facts or questions, or in the relative weight given to one variable at the expense of others. Also, political pressure may be put on the policy analyst to come up with recommendations that are acceptable to a certain interest group. Regardless of the causes of subjectivity, policy analysis is always an approximation of the ideal, in effect an informed anticipation as to the effects of a policy or a set of policies.
I believe that we need to stop crime against children in this generation. Furthermore, we need to identify and help those children that will be capable of continuing this cycle of crime as adults. The imprisoned sex offender, the released sex offender, and the unknown sex offender were children once, too. We should therapeutically treat the juvenile as soon as they are identified as potential offenders. We should not give up on people by “locking them up” An African proverb admonishes us, “It takes a village.” Let us take more responsibility.
I will be pursuing a Community, Organization, Planning and Administration, concentration next year. I realized long ago that I wish to empower clients and advocate for them. I want to do so at the macro level.
American Civil Liberties Union. (August 19, 1994). Press Release. Registration and community notification of convicted sex offender. ACLU – Washington Office publication.
Bierker, S.B. (1989). About sexual abuse. Springfield, Illinois: Charles C. Thomas Publisher.
Brown, J.M. , Gilliard, D.F., Snell, T.L. , Stephan, J.J., Wilson, D.J. (1996). Correctional populations in the United States. U.S. Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics : Washington, D.C. publication.
Finn, P. (1997, February). U.S. Department of Justice, Statistics on sex offender community notification. Rockville, Maryland: National Institute of Justice Publications.
Jansson, B. (1994). Social policy: from theory to policy practice. Pacific Grove: Brooks/Cole.
Karger, H.J., & Stoesz, D. (1994). American social welfare policy: a pluralist approach. New York: Longman.
Nelson, B. J. (1984). Making an Issue of Child Abuse. Chicago: The University Press.
Palmer, E. A. (1996). GOP pushes four crime bills through the House. Congressional Quarterly. p. 1305.
Richardson, L. Target of Megan’s Law Moves, Causing Stir. Loa Angeles Times, March 8, 1997, p.A20.
Schopf, Simon (1995). “Megan’s Law”: Community notification and the Constitution. Columbia Journal of Law. 29 (117), 118-146.
Welch, M.J. (1994). Press Release. Publicizing child molesters in your community. Personal mailing.