Megan's vigilantes


THE recent incident in New Jersey in which five gunshots were fired into the house of a sex offender shows how vulnerable these individuals are to vigilante actions. New Jersey Attorney General Peter Verniero has vowed to prosecute the unknown shooters and is directing local authorities to increase community education efforts to prevent vigilantism, but such measures do not correct the problem inherent in the state's sex-offender notification law.

More than 40 states, including New York [and Maryland], have statutes requiring public notification when a sex offender is released into a community. These "Megan's Laws" typically provide information such as names, pictures and addresses of sex offenders so that parents and teachers can keep on eye out for potential danger. But releasing such information also makes it possible for vigilantes to track down offenders who have served their time and are living peaceably. The authorities have limited ability to protect these individuals from violence.

New Jersey's law provides notification to community groups, schools and even whole neighborhoods. The information inevitably spreads far beyond the neighborhood, and the broader the dissemination, the greater the risk of trouble. In 1995, two men broke into a house and beat a New Jersey man whom they mistakenly thought was a sex offender.

In the shooting case, Frank Penna, was convicted of kidnapping and rape in 1976. He has been out on parole since 1992. Under New Jersey law, offenders who have been out of prison for up to 15 years are still subject to notification requirements.

Penna's neighbors had no reason to believe him a danger until they were notified of his criminal record two weeks ago. The threat he poses is theoretical. But the bullets apparently meant for him were very real. They could easily have injured or killed his neighbors. That irony should not be lost on those who think notification promotes public safety without also exacting a cost.

This editorial appeared in the New York Times.

Pub Date: 6/22/98

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