Back when I was pregnant with my son and living in San Pedro, California, I looked up my zip code on the Megan's Law website after reading an article recommending California residents look through the mug shots of the (mostly male) convicted sex offenders to see how many predators were lurking in my neighborhood.

I did as recommended, and at the time there were 200 in the local area. I had felt uneasy before about the area's halfway houses, but I didn't expect so many! Since then, I routinely check the registry every six months or so.

What Is Megan's Law?

Megan's Law is a law named after a seven-year-old New jersey girl named Megan Kanka who was raped and murdered by a sex offender with a prior history. The law declares communities' rights to know if there is a convicted sex offender in their neighborhoods. Not all states have a similar law yet, but a good many of them do. California's version includes an Internet database of mugshots along with conviction records of these sex offenders.

So what's wrong with a law designed to help parents and communities protect their children by being able to see the mugshot and record of every convicted sex offender in their proximity? Isn't this what we should be striving for in the name of public safety? Nothing is wrong with this — yet much is wrong with it at the same time.

What is a Sex Offender?

The trouble with Megan's Law is we don't all necessarily speak and understand legalese. Frantic parents looking at these sites suddenly panic when they realize the guy across the street was convicted 18 years ago for 'repeated sexual abuse of a child.' But what does that mean? It could mean what you and I are both visualizing when you read that line. It could mean a 4-year-old and her 40-year-old stepfather.

But 'repeated sexual abuse of a child' often can mean statutory rape. Quite a few of these men made the mistake in the late-'70s and early-'80s of being 18 years old and having 15-year-old girlfriends. It could mean that her parents pressed charges the day he turned 18 even though they'd been dating through their teens. It could mean that he registered with the state of California to comply with the law because he's an upstanding sort of citizen now.

Is that man, now with wife and kids and two dogs, a threat to your neighborhood? Odds are probably not, but you wouldn't know that from the site. The site sets parents into a panic of their imagination — which is a horrible place to be.

How Complete Is the Sex Offender Registry?

Many convicted sexual predators that have not registered with the state or site, so we do not know their whereabouts. Case in point: When I plug in my zip code for the rural area I live in now, two well-known guys come up. One we all know moved away, but it doesn't have a new address for him. Another, whom we all know about is not listed at all.

Megan's Law is definitely a great tool for parents, but it shouldn't be taken as the gospel truth about either a convicted sex offender or his whereabouts.

Many decent men convicted in their youth of statutory rape are now 50 years old with no other criminal record. Imagine living your life in a state of constant fear that your landlord, church, neighbors will throw you out. For some, that fear has been realized.

A Warning for Teenage Boys

For parents, there is another lesson here. Do your teenage sons a favor and let them know that depending on which state you live in, that 16-year-old sweetheart girl they've been seeing since they were 15 could have parents that want to see them prosecuted for dating her the moment they turn 18. While it might seem rare, it does happen. No one wants his or her child carrying this stigma into his adult life.

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