Megan’s law fails all around

Alex Landon is an attorney specializing in criminal law who teaches at the University of San Diego School of Law

In January, news media reported that California had lost track of 33,296 registered sex offenders from “Megan’s List.” NPR quoted a victim’s rights spokeswoman portraying registered people as “those most cunning sexual predators.”’s version exacerbated public fear by spotlighting one of the few offenders that most people would agree probably should be monitored.

Reflexive political responses ensued: U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein and state Senators Dean Florez and Dennis Hollingsworth scrambled for funds needed to “fix” Megan’s Law ($20 million, said California Attorney General Bill Lockyer). Meanwhile, California faces a monumental fiscal crisis.

A sober look at the 7-year-old law is long overdue. Here is what that look reveals: Although the law was designed in response to terrible crimes, such as the one against Megan Kanka, now approximately one of every 135 California men must register and endure lifetime branding as a dangerous person.

But this immense list includes people who either never were or are no longer dangerous: victims of false accusations spawned by child-custody battles; young men convicted of sex with underage girlfriends; men convicted on dubious date-rape or pornography charges; people facing long prison terms who plead to lesser charges but may not be guilty of anything; and people who misbehaved 25 years ago, who have changed and whose families are harmed by the harassment Megan’s Law produces.

What of the murky claim about “missing” registrants? Are these people unaware that they have to register annually? Registration began in 1944 and changed substantially when Megan’s Law was enacted. Some registrants would be 100 years old now—people generally do not come in to report they have died.

If some people are not registering, this is no surprise. Prejudice, threats and vigilante acts against convicted people and their families can result from registration.

If registered people were evaluated for dangerousness, the list would plummet from 93,139 to 1,000 or 2,000 names.

Instead of a realistic reappraisal, politicians Lockyer and Feinstein have announced costly plans to extend the list to the Internet. To justify the list, Lockyer claims “sexual predators … are more likely to re-offend than other criminals.” The ill-defined term “predators” may be aimed at obscuring the fact that the U.S. Justice Department says “recidivism rates for sex offenders are lower than for the general criminal population.”

Now is not the time for epithets and exaggerations. It is time to craft a responsible law with a reasonable price tag.