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Tougher Pennsylvania Megan's Law act may hit snag because of costs

Chuck Biedka
| Sunday, April 18, 2010

Major changes could be coming to Pennsylvania's version of Megan's Law, the statute designed to track sex offenders.

The proposed change, based on a 2006 federal law, would place more stringent restrictions on Pennsylvania's Megan's Law offenders, including:

• setting up a three-tier offender system based on the severity of the crime to replace a two-tier system;

• higher standards for law enforcement regarding the verification of information about offenders on the list;

• greater community notification.

• participation in a national Megan's List registry.

There is no guarantee Pennsylvania will change its law. The state faces, however, a cut in its federal funding for law enforcement if it doesn't.

The law is named after 7-year-old Megan Kanka, a New Jersey girl who was raped and killed by a known child molester who moved across the street from her family.

Although most states passed so-called Megan's laws, their terms vary widely.

The federal government is implementing the Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act of 2006. It requires all states to meet various standards or sustain a 10-percent reduction in federal criminal justice grants.

Pennsylvania has asked the Justice Department to delay implementation until July 2011.

In Fiscal Year 2009-10, Pennsylvania received $45.4 million from the federal Justice Assistance Grant program. The state's Commission on Crime and Delinquency got about $12 million to operate and give local grants, according to federal reports.

A 10-percent penalty would withhold $4.5 million in a state strapped with decreased revenue.

Even so, some states are opting to take the penalty.

California, which received $135.6 million in its 2009-10 federal allocation, decided the changes were more costly than the loss of grant money.

Gov. Ed Rendell's spokesman, Gary Tuma, said the state will soon study what it needs to do to comply, including the cost.

New Jersey and three other states are using a federal grant to analyze the ramifications of the Walsh Act, said Kristen M. Zgoba of the New Jersey Department of Corrections.

Tuma said he doesn't know why such an analysis didn't happen before Congress voted to enact the act.

"We're interested in the results of the (New Jersey) analysis when its ready," Tuma said.

Tuma said the Rendell administration is looking at a number of changes in Pennsylvania's Megan's Law.

He declined to say whether the state is reviewing the section of the law requiring sex offenders to take responsibility for reporting to state police -- probably the law's most controversial provision.

Zgoba, a former Rutgers University professor, dislikes the "self-report" feature.

"That's the biggest loophole in Megan's Law," she said.

She said the media usually focuses on sex offenses committed against children by strangers. Those crimes are rare, she said.

"People need to be aware that most sexual assaults -- more than 90 percent -- are done by people they are familiar with -- their acquaintances and family -- not a stranger," she said.

Three-tier reporting

Among other changes, the Walsh Act requires a three-tier reporting system rather than Pennsylvania's two-tier system for sexual offenders and predators.

The two-tier system requires offenders to report annually for 10 years, while those determined to be sexual predators must report every three months for the rest of their lives.

Unless the person is on probation, the law relies on the offender to comply with Megan's Law reports.

Most states do the same. In New York, for example, only about 5,000 of the 30,000 registered sexual offenders are on probation. That means that 25,000 must self-report, according to a New York state Web page.

Under the new federal rules:

• Low-level, "Tier I" offenders must report their home address and job site annually for 15 years.

• More serious Tier II offenders must report every six months for 25 years.

• Tier III offenders -- those convicted of the most serious sexual crimes, such as rapists and those deemed sexual predators -- have a lifetime three-month reporting requirement.

Ohio is the only state to fully comply with the Act.

It may not be easy for Pennsylvania to do so.

The Walsh Act would require Pennsylvania offenders to register before they complete prison sentences. That would add about 10,000 names, said state police Lt. Doug Grimes, who manages the state's Megan's Law office. The list now has about 9,900 names.

Also, state police would also have to list map coordinates for all sexual offenders on its Megan's site and make other changes.

All of that will hike the price tag for taxpayers.

Additional Information:

On the Web

State police Megan's Law site

Additional Information:

Numbers increasing

Roughly 10,100 sexual offenders live in Pennsylvania. There were about 9,400 sexual offenders statewide two years ago.

Here is a breakdown for area counties:

• Allegheny County: 762

• Armstrong County: 38

• Butler County: 73

• Westmoreland County: 240

Source: Pennsylvania State Police

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