A 2008 report funded by the Justice Department found the original Megan's Law in New Jersey to be a non-event. The policy, researchers documented, "showed no demonstrable effect in reducing sexual re-offenses" and "has no effect on reducing the number of victims involved in sexual offenses." The zero effect had a cost above zero -- nearly $4 million annually for the 15 counties included in the study.
A more comprehensive study was undertaken by Amanda Agan, a doctoral candidate in economics at the University of Chicago, and published recently in the Journal of Law and Economics. Analyzing data from across the country, she detected no tangible gains from this approach.
"Rates of sex offense do not decline after the introduction of a registry or public access to a registry via the Internet, nor do sex offenders appear to recidivate less when released into states with registries," she writes. Evidence from Washington, D.C. shows no connection between the number of sex offenders on a block and the rate of sex crimes.
That doesn't mean you and I are crazy to prefer knowing about the pedophile next door. But it suggests the information offers no actual benefit.
After all, most convicted sex offenders do not go on to be arrested for new sex offenses, and more than 90 percent of child victims are assaulted not by strangers but by relatives or other people they know.
Sex offender registries may cause parents to focus on the remote peril while ignoring the more pertinent one. And, as in the examples cited earlier, they can inflict harsh punishment that departs from common sense and does nothing for public safety.
Shielding citizens from vicious predators is unquestionably one of the central functions of any sound government. Megan's Laws were enacted in the sensible pursuit of that goal. What they offer in practice, though, is counterfeit comfort.
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