Video: Does Megan's law work?

By Michael Okwu Correspondent
NBC News correspondent
updated 7/5/2005 8:45:48 PM ET 2005-07-06T00:45:48

With the release of a video this week showing alleged kidnapper Joseph Duncan hiding in plain sight — his alleged victim right beside him — parents across the country are wondering exactly how effective state-by-state sex offender registry laws really are.

Duncan faced kidnapping charges Tuesday , but it is still an agonizing re-run for parents like Erin Runion, whose 5-year-old daughter, Samantha, was killed by a serial abuser in July 2002.

"We've got to make some purpose out of these kids who lose their lives to these perpetrators," she says.

Megan's Law was named after Megan Kanka, a 7-year-old who was raped and murdered in 1994. The law requires all 50 states to release information about sex offenders, but it never defined how states would do that.

Every state enforces the law its own way. Some states mandate active notification — law enforcement putting up posters, going door-to-door to tell local residents there's a sex offender moving to the neighborhood.

But 22 states require only "passive" notification — meaning the residents themselves have to take action by accessing sex offender registries on the Internet or writing to local law enforcement.

And, in the end, the system relies on the offenders themselves to register. Child advocates say it's an honor system with little hope of being enforced.

"We are expecting them to go and visit their parole officers so that we can be informed of their presence in a community," says Laura Ahearn, the executive director of Parents for Megan's Law. "It's outrageous."

Child advocates say there are more than 550,000 registered sex offenders in the United States and almost a quarter of them do not comply with the sex registry laws and simply vanish.

Civil libertarians say the concern is often overstated.

"What's often also left out of this debate is that 90 percent of victims know their perpetrators," says Robert Perry with the New York Civil Liberties Union. "These are family members, neighbors, acquaintances."

Nonetheless, Tuesday, Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., called for a national registry, designed to close the loopholes that convicted sex offenders who strike again often slip through.

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