Commentary Magazine


Megan's Law & the

Probably there are by now few people who have not heard the story of Megan Kanka of Hamilton Township, New Jersey—or at least some story similar to it. It is the kind of story, indeed, to which we are in danger of becoming inured because of its familiarity: how one day during this past July Megan, seven years old, went missing and after a frantic search was found discarded in some tall grass not far from her house, raped and strangled. Shortly thereafter, a thirty-three-year-old man named Jesse Timmendequas was arrested and then confessed to the crime.

Timmendequas had twice before been convicted of sexually assaulting young girls, had spent six years in what the press referred to as a “treatment facility,” and had only recently been released and returned, as they say, to the community. Along with two other sexual-offender “rehabilitees,” he had been living in the house across the street from Megan’s. After he was apprehended, neighbors told reporters, as neighbors in these circumstances so often do, that he had been a quiet man.

The citizens of Hamilton Township were naturally outraged—by the crime itself, of course, but almost as much by the fact that no one had informed them of the criminal history of their new neighbors. They quickly organized themselves and began to circulate a petition—which has been signed so far by more than 200,000 New Jerseyans—demanding the passage of a state law that would require correction officials to notify people when a sex offender has moved into their neighborhood. Their crusade is succeeding and has spread to New York, where similar legislation will soon be proposed in the State Assembly.

The demand for such notification is not new. In various forms and guises, it has recently figured in numerous proposals to toughen the criminal-justice system and offer more protection to potential victims and less to violent, or potentially violent, criminals.

In any event, it seems certain that in many places beyond New Jersey and New York, people are gearing up to initiate referenda or to engage in other forms of public protest against what appears to be the regnant liberal preoccupation with the privacy rights and other privileges of violent criminals, particularly sex offenders.

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Nowhere has this preoccupation been more in evidence than in an editorial published in the New York Times on August 15 under the title, “Dealing With Sex Offenders.” What happened to Megan Kanka was a “genuine tragedy,” the editorial begins; small wonder that her neighbors, together with much of New Jersey’s political leadership, are demanding a crackdown on sex offenders who have been released from jail. Understandable as is the emotion behind this demand, however, the Times would caution everyone not to be too hasty.

It is true, the Times acknowledges, that those who wish to have “new stringencies” imposed on sex offenders are speaking for millions of Americans. Nevertheless, the Times believes that some of the measures currently being proposed for dealing with these offenders are likely to do more harm than good: for example, that sex offenders be required to register with the police departments of the towns they settle in; or that they be required to report their whereabouts every 30 days; or that the police be required to notify the residents of a neighborhood of a sex offender’s presence there; or, most stringent of all, that sex offenders be made to spend the rest of their lives in prison “unless they can convince officials that they have been rehabilitated.”

All this, the Times fears, could “destroy the efforts of thousands of law-abiding former sex offenders to rebuild their lives.”

The demand for notification is, as the Times sees it, particularly problematic. “Why, for instance, should a sex offender be branded when a released drug dealer, armed robber, or murderer is not?” It is argued that the rate of recidivism among sex offenders is so high, the editorial continues, that it is better to be safe than sorry. However, “treatment experts” disagree. In the opinion of these experts, says the editorial, not only are the recidivism rates exaggerated, “but [they] depend on a range of factors, including the nature of the crime and whether the offender received treatment.” Moreover, although “several therapies have been shown to lower recidivism rates, the vast majority of jailed sex offenders get no help at all.”

Be that as it may, “Community-notification laws do little or nothing to prevent a sex offender from striking again; they simply make it more likely that the offender will be hounded from one town to another”—possibly becoming even more dangerous than he might otherwise be, away from the control of family and friends.

Conversely, the editorial worries, such a system involves the danger of vigilantism. That this danger is real can be seen from the community-notification system in the state of Washington, which has led to incidents of assault, arson, slashed tires, and loss of employment and housing.

How, then, the Times asks, can we craft a system that protects a community from those against whom it must be protected without stigmatizing those from whom it need not be protected? The answer is, “Carefully . . . and without hysteria.” Registration programs that help the police keep track of released sex offenders, “under court supervision that assures procedures meet constitutional safeguards,” may well “have a place in a careful police program.” Furthermore, “Penalties for preying on children can be toughened . . . and juvenile offenders need early counseling and treatment.”

People who have been speaking for the Megans of this world speak from the heart, concludes the Times. “Now it is time for Americans to use their heads as well.”

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There are, to be sure, very good reasons for sharing the Times‘s skepticism about the practical value of notification procedures. After all, when it comes down to it, what are the now-informed neighbors of a recently released rapist and/or child molester to do? Keep their children permanently indoors? Move away? The only really practical step would be to impress upon their new neighbor the advisability of his moving on, i.e., “vigilantism”—something most decent people would, if they were capable of it at all, find most repellent. The citizens of Hamilton Township and their fellow petitioners are perhaps focusing what would otherwise be unmanageable rage, fear, and grief on the more manageable demand for notification.

The real issue for the residents of Hamilton Township is not that they were left ignorant of Jesse Timmendequas’s past but the question of what a man with two prior convictions for sexually assaulting young girls was doing in their, or anybody else’s, neighborhood in the first place—after only six years in a “treatment facility.” Obviously he had convinced the authorities that he was cured and now ready to become one more of the Times‘s “thousands of law-abiding former sex offenders” out to rebuild his life.

The Times relies for its complacency about these people on certain “treatment experts.” But there are other experts who strongly doubt that any known programs of rehabilitation can really work to cure violent sex offenders. Thus, the eminent criminologist John J. Dilulio, Jr. of Princeton recently noted in an op-ed piece in the Wall Street Journal that in his researches he has come upon no such program that could responsibly be called successful. Readers of the Times‘s news columns, if not of its editorial page, are provided more than ample anecdotal evidence to support Dilulio. Almost every week, it seems, one rapist-murderer after another turns out to have been on parole or probation after a prior conviction for the same crime or one almost like it.

So much for the dismal news about rape in general. Beyond this, we move into the subcategory represented by Megan Kanka.

Most people, unconfused by “enlightened” social theories, instinctively understand that a man who is capable of raping a very small child—or a baby in its crib, for we have in these times lived to witness even this—occupies a very special rank of evil, far, far beyond the human territory that is bounded by terms like “rehabilitation” and “law-abiding,” or even normal punishment.

Such a man is not, as the Times would have us believe, in the same class as a drug dealer, or an ordinary murderer, or even, dare one say it?, a rapist of grown women. A person unconfused by fancy social theory might even wonder how someone can commit so unspeakable an act and still find himself worthy to go on living, never mind to be released from incarceration. From whom can he dare to seek understanding, let alone forgiveness—his family, his friends, his prison mates, his therapist? Life imprisonment without parole for the sexual assaulter of a little girl is not only the one truly safe decision from the point of view of society; it might, ironically, be an act of kindness to the rapist as well.

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It is unlikely that any such thought has ever entered the mind of the author of that Times editorial. Partly, no doubt, from a growing habituation to stories like Megan’s, but also in no small part out of an unexamined body of pieties about crime and criminals, those who share the Times‘s views of violent crime have a way of slipping beyond the reality of the criminal behavior they set out to contemplate. Molesters of children, as we know, were once upon a time shunned even in prison and even by the most brutal of their fellow inmates. They were special. But it appears that what was once a point of moral clarity among even the lowest of criminals is now regarded by our leading newspaper as a possibly understandable but nevertheless dangerous form of “hysteria.”

Which is why the Times‘s call to exercise care in crafting a system to deal with this problem is one that it might itself profitably heed in “crafting” its own response to crimes and criminals. Denial, too, is a form of hysteria, and often a very dangerous one. And what but profound denial—especially at a time when Americans are all too justifiably distressed about out-of-control violence—would lead someone to go on reciting that old mantra, “counseling and treatment”?

Vigilantism is certainly not to be taken lightly. Yet anyone thinking seriously about how to forestall it would not, in the year 1994, be worrying about the possible stigmatization of released sex offenders. He would, rather, be worrying about how to restore a little sanity to a criminal-justice system that, when it comes to dealing with really serious crime, has been rendered virtually impotent by a now merely automatic and mindless obsession with the rights of the criminals.

In other words, that the rape-murder of Megan Kanka by a third-time offender should have been seized upon as the occasion for issuing a caution that not all rapists are recidivists, is the sign of something seriously out of whack in the moral understanding of the Times and those for whom it speaks.

The treatment for this condition, if there is one, would have to begin with a heavy course of immersion in reality. So far the recidivism rate for perpetrators of mindless piety does not provide much ground for hope. But who knows what new and effective therapy might one day soon be in the offing?—perhaps the ensconcement of an unannounced two-time rapist in the house across the street.

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