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Staying Vigilant For Those Most Vulnerable

On July 29, 1994, Megan Kanka a 7 year-old resident of Hamilton Township was abducted. The next day, she was found dead.

Megan’s parents did not know that a twice-convicted sex offender was living across the street until that neighbor was charged with the brutal rape and murder of their daughter. Unfortunately, the police department was prohibited from disclosing the presence of this child molester because at the time the law did not allow for the release of sex offender information to the public.

The aforementioned crime occurred only months after a similar incident in Monmouth County. Sadly, it took a tragedy to prompt passage of state laws requiring notification about sex offenders who may pose a risk to the community.

Megan’s Law, named for the hapless victim of the heinous crime, calls for convicted sex offenders to register with local police. Moreover, it established a three-tier notification process to provide information about offenders to law enforcement agencies and, when appropriate to the public. The type of notification is based on an evaluation of the risk to the community from a particular offender.

Twelve years have passed since the Kanka family lost their daughter as a result of an egregious act and as a sponsor of Megan’s Law and chairman of the New Jersey Senate Law and Public Safety Committee I am determined to remain proactive and pro-victim when dealing with sexual predators.

My intense interest in this issue was inspired by similar stories I heard regarding sex offenses. Furthermore, I was also motivated to draft victim-oriented legislation by what I believed was a system that would bend over backwards for criminals. Lawmakers have a responsibility to protect the rights of innocent people not repetitive sexual offenders.

My sense of the sentiment of the state’s citizenry in 1994 was that our residents were fed up with “leniency” and the belief that we could reform habitual sex offenders and killers. My feeling was that we might not be able to halt sex crimes altogether, but we could keep a few more brutal murderers off the streets and out of neighborhoods. Our priority then and still is to work towards promoting the greater good which has always been saving innocent lives.

More than a decade later, our commitment and our cause should remain as consistent and compelling. Raising public awareness pertaining to this societal ill must be a paramount part of the public’s agenda. Complacency could cost us dearly.

Unlike any other issue this a subject where Democrats and Republicans can come together to support appropriate and aggressive solutions to the problem. Party labels may be prominent when debating topics such as stem cell research, gun control and the environment but partisanship must not play a part in protecting the people we serve.

In the spirit of bipartisanship, I recently reached out to two of my colleagues across the aisle to co-sponsor preventive legislation. Senator Anthony Bucco, a Republican who represents the 25th legislative district, and I are pushing a bill that will ban all sex offenders from holding positions in youth serving organizations. Senator Peter Inverso, a GOP legislator from the 14th district, and I have drafted a bill that would require the Attorney General to prepare a pamphlet to educate children about pedophile crimes and how to reduce their chances of becoming victims of such crimes.

Senate Democrats such as Paul Sarlo, Stephen Sweeney, and Fred Madden have joined me on the frontlines to see to that a sex offender Internet registry under Megan’s Law is created and a bill that would make permanent a pilot program for the continuous, satellite based monitoring of high risk sex offenders, as well as other sex offenders deemed fitting for monitoring. Our efforts have been enhanced by the leadership provided by Governor Richard Codey.

We must continue to fight for stronger and longer sentences of sexual predators. After an offender has paid the price for his her penalty he or she should not be released into society without receiving the appropriate psychological counseling and treatment. Following the indivdual’s ability to complete the proscribed regiment then and only then should he or she be allowed to live amongst the general population.

Detractors have always argued that Megan’s Law makes it increasingly difficult for an offender to lead a normal life but I am more concerned with potential victims leading a normal life. Opponents also say that the legislation is too harsh. Yes, I concur that current laws that protect our children are intended to be punitive but they are also meant to be preventative at the same time.

Despite the opposition, Megan’s law has withstood several constitutional challenges, including whether the state has a “compelling interest” in warning the public about sexual predators. It is encouraging to know that because of our initiative in New Jersey, every state now has a version of Megan’s Law, with a variety of notification requirements.

Keeping our communities safe from sex offenders is something regardless of political party affiliation, we can all agree on. This is an issue where we can find common ground for solutions that make common sense.

As lawmakers we owe it to our constituents to continue our crusade against sexual predators. More importantly, we owe to the memory of Megan Kanka.

We must stay vigilant for those most vulnerable.