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Court ruling has communities overhauling Megan’s Laws

When 7-year-old Megan Kanka was raped and murdered by a neighbor, a twice-convicted child sex offender, the reaction in communities large and small was: God forbid something like that should happen here.

When 7-year-old Megan Kanka was raped and murdered by a neighbor, a twice-convicted child sex offender, the reaction in communities large and small was: God forbid something like that should happen here.

Bolstered by online registries of convicted sex offenders, towns enacted laws to keep such criminals from living near schools, parks, day-care centers, and bus stops.

But many of the estimated 150 Pennsylvania cities and towns with such laws are repealing or reconsidering them after a state Supreme Court ruling in May invalidated one statute. New Jersey municipalities did the same after the N.J. Supreme Court ruled residency restrictions invalid in 2009.

"The repeals are overdue," said Don Driscoll of the Community Justice Project, who argued the case against Allegheny County before the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. "The laws contributed to enhanced risk of public safety, instead of the opposite. They exclude sex offenders from stabilized housing, employment, and treatment, all of which have been identified as factors in recidivism."

Since the May 26 ruling, Doylestown and Hilltown Townships and Hatboro Borough have wiped the laws off their books, and Abington, Lower Pottsgrove, Newtown, and Falls Townships are considering doing the same.

Doylestown and Hilltown supervisors also were prompted by a letter from the Delaware Valley Insurance Trust to repeal the law to avoid liability. The trust provides coverage to about 40 cities and towns in the Philadelphia area.

"I suspect [other towns] will be following suit," said Jeffrey P. Garton, solicitor for Doylestown and Newtown Townships.

The laws are similar to Allegheny County's, which prohibited sex offenders from living within 2,500 feet of any child-care facility, community center, public park, recreation center, or school. They were enacted around 2005 to expand on Megan's Law, which requires convicted sex offenders to report their addresses to police but does not restrict where they can live.

Allegheny County's law violated the state legislature's intent behind Megan's Law, the seven judges on the state Supreme Court ruled, by banishing sex offenders to "localized penal colonies" with little access to jobs, support, or their families.

All 50 states and the federal government have versions of Megan's Law, named for the Hamilton Township, N.J., girl who in 1994 was lured into her neighbor's house with the promise of seeing a puppy, then was raped and strangled. Her parents said they would have been more vigilant had they known the neighbor was a convicted sex offender.

When Newtown Township enacted its residency law in 2006, "it made sense as public officials to protect residents, to pass a law that would control where they [registered sex offenders] live," Jerry Schenkman, a township supervisor who voted for it, said last month.

Because the legislature had not established residency criteria and the courts had not ruled on the issue, "it was wide open for towns to step up," said Schenkman, a lawyer. "Every municipality was on its own."

Doylestown Township Police Chief Stephen White encouraged passage of his town's law six years ago. "It's good to control what you can control, such as keeping sex offenders away from schools and playgrounds," he said recently.

Yet officials in Doylestown, Newtown, and other towns said they rarely if ever needed to enforce the laws. Some had forgotten the laws were on the books.

"There was no one who didn't comply," White said about Doylestown Township, which had a map of the restricted areas on its website.

With or without the residency law, the bottom line, White said, is that the Megan's Law website was enhanced a few years ago to provide registered sex offenders' addresses, photos, and descriptions of their offenses.

"What everyone needs to do is plug in their zip code and see who lives in their neighborhood," he said. "They are able to protect themselves and really make a difference."

Under Megan's Law, adults convicted of or pleading guilty to sexually violent offenses must register for 10 years or a lifetime, depending on the offense. When offenders are released from prison or move, they must provide their addresses to their local police departments, which post the information at the state database,

There are 11,244 active registrants on the website, including 505 classified as "sexually violent predators." When "predators" move into a neighborhood, police also distribute fliers to residents.

Jill S. Levenson, an associate professor at Lynn University in Florida and a nationally recognized expert on sexual violence, said that online registries and residency restrictions were flawed, giving parents a false sense of security.

"Most victims are assaulted by someone not on the registries," she said. "Most are by new offenders."

Registries are ineffective because they focus on "stranger danger," but 93 percent of children and 80 percent of adults know their attackers, she said.

"Stranger danger is a naive way to look at registered sex offenders," Levenson said. "It's better to educate parents on the patterns of sex offenders to gain access to children. It's more likely someone they know and trust."

Laws restricting where sex offenders may live were prompted by "heinous crimes" such as the attack on Megan Kanka, which are "extremely rare and not typical," said Levenson, a clinical social worker.

"There is no relationship between how close a registered sexual offender lives to children and whether he will reoffend. It's not more likely. Distance has no bearing on reoffending.

"It's like saying someone with a DUI conviction can't live within 2,500 feet of a place that sells alcohol, or a person convicted of robbery can't live near a retail place."

Some states have established loitering zones that prohibit offenders from loitering within 300 to 500 feet of children, Levenson said. "This makes more sense. It prevents them from hanging out near children and is better in regulating where they hang out."

Residency laws can force offenders to move to more rural towns, where there are fewer jobs and other support for them. Or they may not report their addresses, which prevents monitoring by probation and parole officers.

Now that the state Supreme Court has ruled residency restrictions invalid, towns must decide what to do with their laws.

"In these kinds of cases, towns usually don't repeal their laws," said Sara Rose, a lawyer with the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania, which helped argue the case against Allegheny County. "A lot of times, they either don't enforce their ordinance or they enforce it, and then we get involved."

But the Delaware Valley Insurance Trust may be forcing members' hands. In a memo to Hilltown Township, the trust said it would not defend a township that had such a law and would not be responsible for financial consequences of residency restrictions, said Linda Seines, interim township manager.

The trust's president, Richard Lee, would not comment.

The state legislature plans extensive changes to Megan's Law this fall, but the changes do not deal with residency, said an aide to State Sen. Stewart J. Greenleaf, a Republican who represents parts of Montgomery and Bucks Counties and chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee.

The emphasis is on plugging loopholes and passing the Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act, a federal law that would create a national sex-offender registry and standardize the posting of offenders' data, the aide said.

In Newtown, last month's advertising of an ordinance to repeal the residency restrictions "will get people to think about it, and, hopefully, speak," Schenkman said. "We have to decide what is the better course for residents."