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The History Behind the Law That Created a Registry of Sex Offenders

3 minute read

On May 30, 1997 — exactly 20 years ago Tuesday — when Jesse Timmendequas was convicted of kidnapping, raping and murdering 7-year-old Megan Kanka, the case had already changed American law.

Kanka had gone missing from her home in Hamilton Township, N.J., in July of 1994. Within 24 hours, her body was found dumped in a nearby park.

In the aftermath, her parents said they never would have let her play outside unsupervised if they had known that their neighbor — Timmendequas, who had lured Megan to his house by saying he wanted her to meet his new puppy — was a sex offender who had previously gone to jail for his crimes. That statement sparked a nationwide outcry that led the state to pass “Megan’s Law,” requiring communities to be notified when sex offenders moved into their neighborhoods.

Other states did the same, and President Bill Clinton signed a federal version into law on May 3, 1996, which created an online sex offender registry.

A few months after Megan’s murder, TIME reported that the outcry represented a shift in law enforcement:

Citizens are increasingly taking up the environmental battle cry of NIMBY — not in my backyard! — and rallying to block former convicts from settling in their communities. Local groups are pressing state assemblies for tougher detention laws and parole conditions. When legislators don’t respond quickly enough, citizens take it upon themselves to sound the alert. As a direct result, more and more states are enacting laws that put the interests of the community before the rights of ex-prisoners. The laws, says Patrick Stafford of the Southern Legislative Conference, are ”very representative of the fundamental shift in the approach to crime. Not so long ago, it was ‘Early release, early release! Prisoners’ rights, prisoners’ rights!’ ” The new mood, says Stafford, is ”concern for those people the offender hurt.” The loudest demand is for notification laws that alert citizens when a sex offender is about to be released into their community. At present, 38 states require that local police be notified when a release is imminent.

In a 1996 cover story on protecting children, the magazine also pointed out that a long-term obstacle to making substantive changes to protect children is that it takes national headlines for lawmakers to pay attention. A horrific crime like the one that created Megan’s Law had the power to move lawmakers, but — as Marian Wright Edelman of the Children’s Defense Fund argued in the story — threats to children from things like poverty were more politically difficult to confront.

“Unlike the civil rights movement,” TIME reported, “however — or for that matter the seat-belt, drunk-driving and environmental movements, all of which have changed the way Americans live — the children’s movement is more like a series of spasms than a focused, well-coordinated effort.”

Today, all 50 states have some version of Megan’s Law. Timmendequas, who was originally sentenced to death, is now serving a life sentence after the state abolished the death penalty.

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Write to Olivia B. Waxman at olivia.waxman@time.com