Local Megan's Laws don't make children safer

It’s good to see Pennsylvania towns finally admitting the fallacy behind local Megan’s Laws that restrict where sex offenders can live. Most predators aren’t hiding out in a neighborhood so they can snatch a child off the street. About 90 percent of child sexual abuse is committed by a person known to the victim, usually a family member.

That fact seems to be resonating now that the state Supreme Court has struck down Allegheny County’s Megan’s Law, which the court said banished sex offenders to “localized penal colonies” with little access to jobs or support from family or others, which are key needs in reducing recidivism.

Seven-year-old Megan Kanka was raped and murdered in 1994 in Hamilton Township, N.J., by a neighbor who was a twice-convicted child sex offender.

Since the court ruling in May, a number of the estimated 150 cities and towns in the state with such laws have considered or taken steps to wipe them off the books. Others should follow suit before they are forced by the courts, or by municipal insurance carriers trying to avoid liability.

New Jersey towns took similar action after that state Supreme Court ruled in 2009 that residency restrictions were invalid. The local laws expand on the states’ Megan’s Laws, which require convicted sex offenders to report their addresses to police. Police also distribute fliers to notify residents when a dangerous predator moves into a neighborhood.

But the tougher local laws take communities down a slippery legal slope by also prohibiting sex offenders from living near schools, parks, day-care centers, and other places where children might congregate. Such restrictions are inherently unfair because they can essentially make an entire town off-limits.

The laws also undermine public safety by giving residents a false sense of security, focusing on “stranger danger” when a predator is more likely to be someone a child knows and trusts.

Residency restrictions also serve to drive paroled offenders underground, hiding their identities so they can live wherever they want. The public is better protected when parole officers know exactly where sex offenders are living and are able to monitor them regularly.

The local Megan’s Laws are an overly broad response to horrific crimes. Pennsylvania has 11,244 registrants on its sex-offender website. Towns should use that resource to protect the public, rather than impose counterproductive residency restrictions.