Sex Offender Registration and Notification: Research Finds Limited Effects in New Jersey

January 22, 2009

Researchers for the first time have conducted an independent scientific assessment of the impact of Megan’s Law in New Jersey.

Researchers examined the impact of Megan’s Law on New Jersey as a whole and each county within the state.

Researchers analyzed and compared data from before and after enactment of Megan’s Law in New Jersey. They found that:

  • Sex offense rates in New Jersey have been on a consistent downward trend since 1985. During this period, rearrests for all violent crime (whether sex crimes or not) also decreased. When the researchers examined the decline in each county and then examined the state as a whole, the resulting statistical analysis showed that the greatest rate of decline for sex offending occurred before 1994 (i.e., before the passage and implementation of Megan's Law) and the least rate of decline occurred after 1995.
  • Passage of Megan’s Law did not reduce the number of rearrests for sex offenses, nor did it have any demonstrable effect on the time between when sex offenders were released from prison and the time they were rearrested for any new offense, such as a drug, theft or sex offense. 
  • The majority of sex offenders sentenced in New Jersey are convicted of child molestation and incest. In more than half of the cases, the victim and offender know each other. Megan’s Law did not have an effect on this pattern: The bulk of offenses and reoffenses committed both before and after the law remained child molestation and incest.
  • Megan’s Law had no demonstrable effect on the number of victims involved in sexual offenses, i.e., the data show no reduction in the number of victims.
  • Sex offenders convicted both before and after Megan’s Law serve approximately the same amount of time. Sex offenders convicted after Megan's Law received shorter sentences than those convicted before the law. Sentences were nearly twice as long before the law was passed. But after the law was passed, fewer sexual offenders were paroled largely because of changes in sentencing guidelines. 
  • The researchers estimated the cost of implementing the law. Estimates show that New Jersey spent $555,565 to implement the law in 1995. In 2006, the estimated cost of implementing the law was approximately $3.9 million based on data received from 15 of New Jersey's 21 counties.     

Read the full report from this study Megan's Law: Assessing the Practical and Monetary Efficacy (pdf, 46 pages).

Researchers studying the impact of registration and notification laws in other states have found similar results.

About Megan's Law

In 1994, 7-year-old Megan Kanka was raped and murdered by Jesse Timmendequas, a convicted sex offender who had been released after serving a maximum sentence. In response to this event and other sex crimes, community members successfully lobbied for the enactment of a law requiring sex offender registration and public notification that a sex offender is living and working in the community.

Since the mid-1990's, all 50 states and the District of Columbia have passed similar legislation, collectively referred to as "Megan's Law." Underlying these laws is the belief that notifying the public of the presence of sex offenders in their community allows citizens to take protective measures against potentially dangerous sex offenders who live nearby.

Megan's Law in New Jersey

In New Jersey, sex offenders are required to register with the local police department within a specified time after they are released from prison. Registration and notification are separate steps in New Jersey but are often referred to as one process as they are in other states. Notification to the public and past victims is determined by the level of risk the offender poses. Placement in a tier is determined by a risk assessment instrument the state of New Jersey uses to estimate an offender's likelihood of committing another offense.

Offenders who represent the lowest risk are placed in tier one. They are only required to notify law enforcement officials and the victims after release. Tier two classification represents moderate risk of reoffense and requires notification of organizations, educational institutions, day care centers and summer camps. Tier three offenders are predicted to present the greatest risk to reoffend. Placement in this category generates the most legal resistance because it calls for the broadest level of notification. Under the law, a sizable portion of the community is notified through posters, pamphlets and, more recently, the Internet.

About the Study of Megan's Law in New Jersey

Researchers examined the impact of Megan’s Law on New Jersey as a whole and each county within the state.

Phase One: Identify Trends

Phase one of the study used a pre-post research design to determine trends in the rates of sexually based offenses reported by law enforcement agencies in the 21 counties of New Jersey from 1984 to 2004 — 10 years before to 10 years after the implementation of Megan’s Law. Data on violent, nonsexual crime and drug offenses were also collected and analyzed for the same period to compare trends. All data came from the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reports. Prevalence rates for three types of offenses — sexually based offenses, nonsexually based offenses and drug offenses — were established using population estimates from the Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics guidelines and cross-referenced with the Sourcebook of Criminal Justice Statistics, a yearly publication of the federal government.

Phase Two: Compare “Before” and “After”

Phase two used a sample of 550 sex offenders arrested and released from New Jersey Department of Correction facilities before and after the implementation of Megan’s Law to examine the differences between the two groups. Pre-post comparisons looked for differences in general reoffense arrest rates, sexual reoffense rates, harm (violent offense rates, percentage of child victims) and community tenure.

Phase Three: Estimate Costs

The final phase of the project assessed costs associated with the implementation and current operation of community registration and notification activities in New Jersey. Cost assessment questionnaires were mailed to the Megan’s Law Units in the prosecutor’s offices for the 21 counties. Survey questions were classified under two general categories: start-up costs (equipment, Internet sex offender registry) and ongoing yearly implementation costs for the 2006 calendar year (staff salaries, Internet registry maintenance, equipment maintenance/supplies and office supplies). Fifteen of 21 counties completed the survey. Along with the cost assessment survey, prior New Jersey state budgets were reviewed for costs associated with the incarceration, rehabilitation and tracking of sex offenders.

Demographics of the New Jersey Study

Convicted offenders and their offense types were similar before and after Megan’s Law was passed. Compared to the average criminal, sex offenders are generally older, are more likely to be married or have been married, are more likely to be employed, are better educated and are more likely to have children or step-children. In terms of the offenses, 79 percent of the crimes committed were child molestations and 20 percent were rapes.

In 48 percent of the cases, the sex offender was a member of the victim’s family. In 42 percent of the cases, the perpetrator lived with the victim and in 77 percent of the cases, the crime occurred in the victim’s or offender’s home.

Limitations of the Study

The greatest challenge in conducting research about sexual offenses is the low rate of reported sexual offenses. Because these crimes tend to be underreported, official sources of data and most measures of recidivism may underrepresent true offending rates.

Another challenge in this study was determining whether Megan’s Law served as a deterrent. Although the study found long-term downward trends in sexual arrest rates, it was not possible to determine whether the results were due to decreases in new first-time sex offenses (general deterrence) or to decreases in repeat sexual offenses (specific deterrence).

The study did not examine the extent to which sex offender registration and community notification increased surveillance and prepared the public to take preventive action.

Read the full report from this study Megan's Law: Assessing the Practical and Monetary Efficacy (pdf, 46 pages).

Date Created: January 22, 2009