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On July 29, 1994, a New Jersey man by the name of Jesse K. Timmendequas strangled 7-year-old Megan Kanka in his home and sexually assaulted her before dumping her body in a local park. But what really shocked audiences around the nation was that Timmendequas had already been convicted twice for other sexual assault cases in 1979 and 1981, spending more than six years in jail for his offenses — and he lived right across the street from Kanka, luring her into his home by offering to show a puppy.
A month after the Kanka incident, the New Jersey legislature passed bills requiring sex offenders to register on a database available to the public and tracked by state officials. It also required sex offenders to notify their new neighbors when they relocate. The body of legislation became known as “Megan’s Law,” and is the modern-day cornerstone of sex offense punishment.
(Note: At the federal level, sex offense laws are also referred to as the Jacob Wetterling Act)
Proponents of maintaining current sex offender laws generally point to incidents like the assault and murder of Megan Kanka — if Megan and her family knew about Timmendequas’ history, then she would most likely be alive today. Parents for Megan’s Law, an organization with little tolerance for sex offenders, sums up views millions of others share:
“Convicted sex offenders do not have the right to slip away unnoticed because of the risk they pose to communities,” they said. “Convicted sex offenders pose a risk to the community and the community should be given the opportunity to decide what precautions they take to protect themselves. Providing all information to the community will prevent bureaucratic blunders and theoretically based assessments from taking the lives of women and children in our nation.”
Kentucky man Guy Hamilton-Smith admitted to possession of child pornography in 2007, qualifying him for the public sex offender label under Megan’s Law. However, Hamilton-Smith said he wanted to rehabilitate himself and pursue a career in law at the University of Kentucky. Despite graduating in the top third of his class, the state supreme court prohibited him from taking the bar exam.
“If you don’t give people a way to pay their debt to society then I don’t think that breeds anything good,” Hamilton-Smith said. “I think society pays for that in the end.”
However, Hamilton-Smith’s public shaming pales in comparison to the thousands of other registered sex offenders who became victims themselves. According to Human Rights Watch, registered sex offenders “have been beaten, burned, stabbed, and had their homes set on fire.” They argue that offenders live the rest of their lives burdened with social stigma, regardless of the nature or severity of their crime. For example, a teen who may have exposed himself as a prank will be grouped into the same category as a child rapist.
Regardless of the case entities like Hamilton-Smith and Human Rights Watch make, it’s unlikely lawmakers will be swayed by a vocal minority in favor of leniency for sex offenders — the fact of the matter is millions of Americans admittedly hold little to no empathy for sexual offenders. Rather, some lawmakers are working toward closing sex crime loopholes they say allow many offenders to avoid lengthy prison sentences. Others, however, seek to reform laws to separate the more dangerous predators from less severe offenders like Hamilton-Smith, recognizing that even a well-intentioned system can be broken.
While most agree a violations of sexual law are heinous crimes, not all people agree on how to approach punishment for those offenders. As offenses continue, so too will the debate.