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Megan's Law Fallout

by W. Wisely

The 1996 Megan's Law, an amendment to the 1994 Wetterling Act, requires public notice when convicted sex offenders move into a community. Some 14 states provide that public notice by posting photographs, addresses, and conviction records of sex offenders on Web pages, according to the Law Enforcement News. "States are doing this to correspond with the Megan's Law aspect of the Jacob Wetterling Act, and this actually does meet that provision as an inexpensive and reaching way for states to distribute information about sex offenders-their way of doing community notification," said Scott Mattson, research associate with the Center for Sex Offender Management.

On the Virginia State Police's web page, some 4,000 sex offender records can be accessed by the public. But, there are some unintended consequences of using the Internet to notify the public that a sex offender may be in their midst. Web pages are relatively easy for experienced hackers to attack and alter. The possibility of finding a public official's photograph, name, and address listed on a sex offender notification site is a problem. But, such sites also enable sex offenders to contact each other after finding information on the Web.

"That's a big [problem]," Mattson said. "You know how child pornography is such a big thing on the Net? Well, you have a mailing list of entire states full of sex offenders right at your fingertips." Such opening December 29, 1998, the Virginia site has received over 3.3 million hits. The volume has forced state officials to bring two additional servers online, said Capt. Lewis Vass, head of that state's criminal justice information services division. Even prisoners convicted of sex offenses are listed on the web site, along with their prison address, prompting Charles Riley, imprisoned at Nottoway Correctional Center in Burkeville, Virginia, to refuse to register as a sex offender for fear of retaliation.

In an unanticipated reaction to Megan's Law, two exclusive, gated communities in New Jersey voted to prohibit convicted sex offenders from buying property or living within their developments "I love children, and I am a woman," Kate Selich, a resident of another gated community, said, "and I am the last person that would want to see a [sex offender], but what are we going to do, put walls to keep them safe? How does this help anything?" And, in communities that already house convicted sex offenders, it seems real estate values are falling.

"The value of homes near houses identified on the Internet as sex offenders' homes are likely to decrease because many people do not want to move into a house near a sex offender," Rose Hochman, a Michigan real estate agent, wrote in a declaration submitted in a lawsuit against police for refusing to correct the address listed on their web site. The ACLU, representing plaintiffs Gayathri and Viswanath Akella, has expanded the suit into a class action. The Akellas bought the former home of a man listed as a sex offender on the Internet. The police failed to change the address on their web page at first, giving in only after the suit received widespread media attention.

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