Do We Really Need Megan’s Law?

Maybe not, but what legislator would vote against a dead child?

The Inquirer reported yesterday that a recent Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruling on an Allegheny County law is causing local municipalities to revise their Megan’s Laws. The sections of the law in question placed restrictions on where sex offenders could live, creating, the court said, “localized penal colonies” that increased the chances of recidivism by isolating offenders from jobs and support. Statutes in Doylestown and Hilltown townships and Hatboro Borough have already been rescinded, and Abington, Newtown and Lower Pottsgrove, the Inquirer reports, are among localities considering following suit.

Megan, you’ll recall, was seven-year-old Megan Kanka of Hamilton Township, New Jersey, who was raped and murdered by a sex-offender neighbor after he promised to show her a puppy. It was a cowardly, heinous crime, no doubt about it. And the flurry of laws enacted to “honor Megan’s memory” and prevent another such crime was well-meaning. Megan’s parents argued that had they known the neighbor was a sex offender, they would have kept a closer eye on their daughter.

It happens all the time—a terrible crime, a public outcry, and a hasty legislative attempt to prevent any similar crimes from taking place ever again. After Casey Anthony was acquitted in the death of her daughter Caylee, the cry went out to pass “Caylee’s Law,” a federal statute that would charge parents with a felony if they didn’t report a missing child within 24 hours or a child’s death within one hour. There are pushes and petitions for all sorts of laws based on a single, tragic instance: “Jessica’s Law,” “The Adam Walsh Act,” “Kyleigh’s Law,” “Tyler’s Law,” “Judy and Nikki’s Law.” We’re so outraged by the actions of one offender that we determine to punish all persons, down through the ages, who behave like that offender. They’re laws born of knee-jerk reactions, of the heart, not the head. They’re rarely effectual and rarely even used. But they satisfy our deep, primal urge for punishment and revenge.

More than a dozen years ago, the Los Angeles Times ran a terrific piece by Mark Fritz called “The Politics of Parental Grieving.” It’s more than worth a read. One statistic Fritz cited back in 1999 is especially telling: The American Bar Association reported that “40 percent of the federal criminal laws passed since the Civil War had come in just the last three decades, often ‘in patchwork response to newsworthy events’ rather than an ‘identifiable federal need.’”

Why do lawmakers pass them? Because they’re popular even when they’re irrational. Who could dare vote against a law named for a dead little girl? Fritz quotes a lobbyist who says, “Any time real emotion based on human tragedy enters the public policy arena, it becomes more difficult to enact policy that recognizes the limitations of the world we live in.” These laws named after dead kids are, as Fritz writes, the result of “a tragic tale, a family calamity transformed into arresting allegory, a freak occurrence offered up as a terrifying trend.” In fact, as the Inquirer points out, “stranger danger” crimes are exceedingly rare; 93 percent of all child victims know their assailants. What such laws do is create a false sense of security for parents; we know they’re in place, so we become less vigilant, not more. How many of us have ever actually gone to the trouble of checking the state registry for registered sex offenders in our neighborhoods?

I don’t begrudge any parents who have lost a child the right to set out on whatever crusades they feel the need to embark on. It’s impossible for me to say how I’d react if tragedy took one of my kids. But at the very least, by now we should have wised up enough to look with extra caution on laws that spring up out of the cauldron of parental grief, to make sure they meet rational needs and not just irrational ones.