Megan's Law & The Adam Walsh Child Protection Act
Megan’s Law is named after a 7-year-old Hamilton Township, New Jersey girl named Megan Nicole Kanka. On July 29, 1994, she was lured into her neighbor’s home with the promise of a puppy and was brutally sexually assaulted and murdered by a two-time convicted sex offender who had been convicted in a 1981 attack on a 5-year-old child and an attempted sexual assault on a 7-year-old. Sparked by community outrage, petitions began circulating throughout the state of New Jersey demanding the right to be made aware of sexual predators. Megan’s parents, Maureen and Richard Kanka, had gathered more than 430,000 signatures, and 89 days after Megan’s disappearance the first state law that mandated active community notification was signed into law, New Jersey’s Megan’s Law.
The Kankas along with other advocates across the country, such as Marc Klaas, Patty Wetterling, John Walsh and many other victims and advocates, successfully lobbied federal lawmakers to pass the May 1996 federal version of Megan's Law . The Kanka family founded the Megan Nicole Kanka Foundation to ensure that every possible step is taken to help prevent the future victimization of children.
The federal version of Megan’s Law differed drastically from New Jersey’s version of Megan’s Law. The federal law required all 50 states to release information to the public about known convicted sex offenders when it was necessary to protect their safety but did not mandate active notification. If a state failed to comply with minimal release of information standards established by the federal government, then that state risked losing federal crime-fighting funding. The federal mandate to release information to the public is often mistakenly referred to as community notification when, in actuality, the federal mandate required just the release of information to the public – not active notification. There is a significant difference between simply releasing information (making it available for the public to access on its own) and active community notification, where law enforcement officers or designated government agents actively go door to door or send out mailings to inform neighbors and schools. The federal Megan’s Law did not require all 50 states to enact active notification laws, whereas New Jersey’s state Megan’s Law had specific requirements for active community notification.
Before Megan's Law - The Jacob Wetterling Sexually Violent Offender Registration Act
On October 22, 1989, 11-year-old Jacob Wetterling bicycled with his brother Trevor, 10, and friend Aaron 11, to their Minnesota home from a convenience store where they had rented a video. Their ride home was interrupted by a masked man who stepped out of a driveway with a gun and ordered the children to throw their bikes into a ditch and lie face down on the ground. After asking the boys their ages he told Jacob’s brother and friend to run into the woods and not look back or he would shoot them. No arrest has ever been made and Jacob has never been found. Investigators later learned that, unbeknownst to local law enforcement, sex offenders were being sent to live in halfway houses nearby.
In February of 1990, four months after Jacob’s disappearance, the Jacob Wetterling Foundation was established by Jacob’s parents, Patty and Jerry Wetterling. Patty was appointed to a Minnesota governor’s task force to make recommendations on sex offender registration. After successfully establishing sex offender registration in Minnesota, Patty and Jerry Wetterling went on to lobby for federal legislation to require all 50 states to register resident sex offenders.
The Wetterlings were not alone in their effort to lobby for a uniform federal law to mandate sex offender registration and some form of public notification. A hearing to discuss the revolving door of justice was called on March 1, 1994 by the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on the Judiciary, Subcommittee on Crime and Criminal Justice. The hearing was called to discuss the revolving door of justice in the U.S. and new approaches to recidivism. There were five panels called together – one included victims and their families.
Testimony was given by Marc Klaas; Peggy, Gene and Jennifer Schmidt; Susan Sweetser, a Vermont State Senator and rape survivor; and Dick and Diane Adams, whose son, a store clerk, was killed during an armed robbery. Testimony at that hearing urged the passage of federal legislation to register and notify communities of the presence of sex offenders.
Marc Klaas is the father of 12-year-old Polly Klaas, who was kidnapped by a career criminal at knife point from her bedroom slumber party and was later found murdered. Marc founded Klaas Kids Foundation a nonprofit children’s advocacy organization that has been instrumental in working for nationwide and international laws to stop crimes against children. Marc Klaas also founded Beyond Missing, to provide law enforcement agencies with a secure, Internet based system to create and distribute missing child flyers to law enforcement, the media, and public and private recipients.
Gene, Peggy and Jennifer Schmidt from Kansas are the father, mother and sister, respectively, of 19-year-old college student Stephanie Schmidt, who was brutally raped and murdered by a coworker whom she was not aware was a known convicted sex offender. The Schmidt family founded Speak Out For Stephanie (SOS), The Stephanie Schmidt Foundation a not-for-profit organization dedicated to changing laws and promoting public safety and awareness about sex offenders. The Schmidt family is best known for their efforts in successfully advocating for nationwide laws that confine sexual predators indefinitely. These laws are referred to as Sexual Predator Commitment Laws or Sexual Predator Civil Confinement Laws. Nine months after Stephanie’s death, the Stephanie Schmidt Sexual Predator Act – empowering a state civil commitment procedure – became a retroactive law for all Kansas sex offenders. Although originating in Washington State, the Kansas statute reached the U.S. Supreme Court where it was ruled constitutional in 1997.
Patty Wetterling and these advocates worked tirelessly toward the passage of the Jacob Wetterling Sexually Violent Offender Registration Act and it was included in the Federal Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994 . The Wetterling Act was signed into law on September 13, 1994 and required all 50 states to establish effective registration programs for convicted child molesters and other sexually violent offenders.
The Wetterling Act also required the states to establish more stringent registration standards for a subclass of offenders considered the most dangerous, designated under law as “ sexually violent predators.” States that failed to comply with the minimum standards risked a 10% reduction of formula grant funding under the Edward Byrne Memorial State and Local Law Enforcement Assistance Program. This is federal funding allocated to states for improving functioning of the criminal justice system with an emphasis on violent crime and serious offenders.
The Wetterling Act also gave states the discretion to decide whether to release sex offender registration information to the public but did not make it a requirement. The following is an excerpt pertaining to the release of sex offender information from The Jacob Wetterling Crimes Against Children and Sexually Violent Offender Registration Act:
(d) Release of Information
The designated state law enforcement agency and any local law enforcement agency authorized by the state agency may release
relevant information that is necessary to protect the public concerning a specific person required to register under this section…
The carefully crafted joining of the two words may and release gave states the discretion to decide whether to release relevant information to protect the public. Conversely, it also gave permission for law enforcement not to release information to the public even if the sex offender was determined to pose a high risk to public safety.
The Wetterling Act is best known for establishing uniform federal minimal standards for registration of convicted sex offenders in all 50 states, DC and the United States territories. As discretionary in nature as it was, for the first time in the history of the United States, it gave all states the discretion to release relevant information to the public about convicted sex offenders who posed a risk to public safety.
Parents for Megan’s Law and Our Role in Creating National Uniformity In Sex Offender Registration and Notification Laws Across The Country
In 2001, Parents for Megan’s Law conducted the first of many national surveys to evaluate the implementation of sex offender registration and notification laws in all 50 States, DC and the US Territories. Surveys revealed that where you lived, would determine how well you could protect yourself or your children from known convicted sex offenders. PFML surveys indicated that all 50 states had enacted registration and notification laws but the laws completely lacked uniformity. Further, a 2003 registration survey conducted by Parents for Megan’s Law found that nearly 25% of the nations’ registered sex offenders were not complying with state registration requirements. This meant, that over 100,000 sex offenders were “missing” from registries across the country.
Laura Ahearn, Executive Director of Parents for Megan’s Law, presented national survey results and community level implementation loopholes to the United States Justice Department which were used to help craft the newest registration and notification amendments to Megan’s Law, more commonly known as the Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act of 2006. For her national registration and notification implementation surveys, community level support contributions and advocacy* efforts, Ms. Ahearn was invited to the White House on July 27, 2006 when the Child Protection Act was signed into law by President Bush.
As stated previously, The Jacob Wetterling Act only authorized state agencies and their designees to release sex offender registration information and Megan’s Law changed the “ may” release to “shall” release. Although Megan’s Law amended The Jacob Wetterling Act to require the release of information, it still did not guarantee an active notification – but only the release of information. This was how a sexual predator could move in next door to you and you might not get actively notified. That will all change after all states comply with the requirements set forth in the Adam Walsh Child Protection Act of 2006 – states have 3 years to comply and may file for an extension.
Six-year-old Adam Walsh was abducted on July 27, 1981 outside the Sears and Roebuck store in the Hollywood Mall in Hollywood Florida. His remains were found in a canal, off the Florida interstate, 100 miles north of Hollywood in Indian River County. On January 6, 1984, three months after Ottis Toole confessed to abducting and brutally murdering Adam Walsh, Ottis Toole recanted, saying he did not kill him. According to America’s Most Wanted, “What may be the most bizarre twist in the Adam Walsh case occurred a few weeks later. The FDLE transferred the carpet samples and Toole's 1971 Cadillac to the Jacksonville Sheriff's Office. Since Toole had recanted his confession, someone deemed the evidence no longer viable and the carpet samples were thrown out. The vehicle was sold to a used car lot and eventually junked for scrap. With the loss of evidence, the opportunity to do DNA testing of the carpets to determine once and for all if Adam was ever in Toole's white Cadillac is now gone. Ottis Toole died at Raiford Prison in September 1996, taking the truth of whether he was Adam's killer or just a false confessor to his grave.”
The work by John and his wife, Reve, led to the passage of the Missing Children Act of 1982 and The Missing Children's Assistance Act of 1984. The latter bill founded the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children .
John Walsh and his wife Revé stood beside President George W. Bush, as the "Adam Walsh Child Protection & Safety Act of 2006" was signed into law on the 25th anniversary of Adam's murder.
The Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act (AWA) significantly strengthens registration and notification laws across the nation by: increasing the duration of registration for sex offenders; increasing in person verifications; requiring active sex offender notification programs; requiring certain juveniles to register; requiring registration for adults convicted of an instant offense that may not be a sex crime if they have a prior sex crime conviction that predates Megan’s Law; requiring registration for sex offenders entering the country; creating a federal felony for sex offenders failing to register (maximum penalty of up to 10 years) and providing funding to the United States Marshals to track down those offenders. AWA also increased mandatory minimum sentences for sex offenders, increased penalties for Internet crime against children and strengthened child pornography prevention laws. AWA further created the Office of Sex Offender Sentencing, Monitoring, Apprehending, Registering, and Tracking (SMART Office) in OJP to administer the standards for sex offender notification and registration, administer the grant programs authorized by the Adam Walsh Act, and coordinate related training and technical assistance.
*Communicating with decision makers (elected officials and staff; voters on ballot measures), about existing or potential legislation, and urging a vote for or against. All three components of this definition are required: decision-makers, actual legislation, AND asking for a vote.