Does a Sex Offender Have a Right to Privacy?

A New Jersey law that allows authorities to notify neighbors when a released sex criminal moves nearby has been put on ice.

  • Does the right of a community to try to protect its children from released sex offenders exceed the offenders' right to privacy? That's the question weighing heavily on the minds of three U.S. district court judges who decided Tuesday to temporarily suspend the enforcement of Megan's Law, the New Jersey neigbor-notification measure named after a young girl who was raped and killed by a released sex offender who lived across the street. The judges, whose decision alarmed proponents of Megan's Law and relieved the lawyers, mainly public defenders, charged with protecting the rights of sexual criminals, asked for time to consider whether the law provides adequate protections for sex offenders after their release from prison. Currently, those convicted of sex crimes who settle in New Jersey are required to register with local police, and their photos, names, addresses, license plate numbers and phone numbers are released to the families and facilities deemed "appropriate" by local officials.

    Since Megan's Law was introduced in 1994, public defenders have argued that its notification requirements were too far-reaching and that confidentiality guidelines were too lax. Although recent, more stringent specifications bulk up those safeguards by requiring recipients of identifying information to sign a pledge of confidentiality, they say that there is little that authorities can (or are willing to) do when that pledge is broken by anxious parents or school officials. Supporters of the notification process want the information to be made as widely available as possible — advocating, for instance, its posting on the Internet. They also point out that the psychosexual impulses that lead people to commit sex offenses against children are very difficult to cure or suppress, leading to a high rate of repeat offenses. The defenders argue that by serving their sentences the offenders have, in effect, paid their debt to society. They also make the case that wide distribution of personal information such as pictures and addresses could lead to acts of retribution. The issue is, of course, shaded by attitudes toward crimes considered by the vast majority to be the most horrific in society. "On the one hand," says TIME legal reporter Alain Sanders, "people who have served their time are innocent until proven guilty, and one offense doesn't necessarily mean you'll commit another crime. On the other hand, a society that doesn't keep an eye on former criminals — particularly those who've committed something so heinous — is acting irresponsibly."