As a strong advocate of limited government, I don’t believe passing lots of new laws all the time is necessarily a good thing. However, of the missions voters do choose to delegate to their elected representatives, public safety is key.
Last February we saw a grand jury implicating the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Philadelphia of child abuse, the Caylee Anthony tragedy in Florida, and the beginning of the still unfolding Penn State scandal.
Closer to home, the newspaper headlines in Lancaster County reveal despicable stories about the treatment of children that make people shake their heads in wonder – “East Earl Man Faces Charges for Having Sex with Girl, 14,” Florida Man Arrested for Sexual Assault of Lititz Boy,” and “Lancaster City Man Faces 19 Sex-crime Charges.”
In Rapho Township this past December, a man who is a registered sex offender was charged with possessing child pornography and threatening a 14-year-old.
Many members of the General Assembly, myself included, believe these events we are witnessing demand the enactment of stronger laws protecting children from abuse, neglect, and sexual assault.
First and foremost must be ensuring parents and guardians are able to know if there are convicted sexual predators living in their communities. That is what the Legislature intended when its passed Megan’s Law in 1995. People may forget the measure was named for 7-year-old Megan Kanka of New Jersey, who in 1994 was abducted, sexually assaulted, and then murdered.
Unfortunately, laws requiring sex offenders to register their whereabouts have been under constant assault by trial lawyers and activist judges, requiring lawmakers to make numerous updates over the years to keep them operational and allow communities to steer their children away from potential danger.
These updates also keep Pennsylvania in compliance with the Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act, the name of the federal law requiring the registration of convicted sex offenders.
Last year, the Pennsylvania Superior Court ruled in two cases that transients and out-of-state sex offenders are not required to register under Megan’s Law and cannot be prosecuted for intentionally failing to register.
Of course, this is not acceptable. That is why both houses of the General Assembly recently voted to send legislation to Gov. Tom Corbett’s desk that closes these legal loopholes. Once this legislation is signed, convicted sex offenders who refuse registration will be committing a crime and subject to arrest.
Homeless offenders will also be required to register as “transients” every 30 days with the state police at approved registration sites, be photographed, and provide information about where he or she may be located, including a homeless shelter or a park.
It also would place sex offenders into a three-tiered system depending on the severity of the offense committed. The worst offenders would be required to register for life, while those found guilty of less serious offenses would register for 15 years.
The registry information will be shared on a website which the public can use to locate sex offenders in a given ZIP code or geographic radius.
However, the trial lawyers are again at work and legislators may be revisiting this issue sooner than we wanted. In January, the U.S. Supreme Court said it wants the 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals to consider whether the U.S. attorney general properly created a rule that says the Adam Walsh Act applies to sex offenders who committed crimes before the 2006 law.
At issue is the case of Billy Joe Reynolds, a man convicted of a sexual offense in Missouri in 2001. Reynolds registered as a sex offender in Missouri, but did not register in Pennsylvania when he moved to Washington County in 2007.
Federal prosecutors in Pittsburgh charged Reynolds in November 2007 with failing to update his registration under the Walsh Act, which mandates tougher reporting requirements than those found in most states. Prosecutors charged Reynolds under the federal law because, at the time, Pennsylvania’s Megan’s Law didn’t cover sex offenders who moved from another state.
However, should the lower court rule in Reynold’s favor, Megan’s Law may again need to be updated. Given the need for all these legal updates to ensure community safety, it is clear we must conduct a thorough review of all Pennsylvania’s child protection and abuse laws.
Recently, the House voted to create the Task Force on Child Protection, which will perform a comprehensive evaluation of the state’s existing child welfare laws and procedures, as well as any inadequacies relating to the mandatory reporting of child abuse.
The task force will make a final report to the governor and Legislature by Nov. 30, 2012, recommending improvements to the reporting of child abuse, and detailing all essential changes to state law and practices its review has deemed necessary.
Pennsylvania’s Megan’s Law website can be accessed at PAMegansLaw.state.pa.us.