Sex offender law could go global with California lawmaker's bill

McClatchy NewspapersFebruary 12, 2010 

WASHINGTON — Megan's Law soon could go international.

The law, named after Megan Kanka, a 7-year-old New Jersey girl who was raped and killed by a neighbor in 1994, requires convicted sex offenders to be registered with the government, making it easier to track their whereabouts. Their names can then be put into databases, allowing the public to do a quick online check to determine where offenders reside.

While the law now applies to all states, California Republican Rep. Dan Lungren is proposing a worldwide crackdown on high-risk sex offenders and sex trafficking.

Under his bill, convicted sex offenders would have to tell local law enforcement of their travel plans 21 days before leaving their country. That information would then be shared with diplomatic officials in foreign countries, who could keep track of the offenders. Lungren is already working with the Mexican government on the proposal.

"The idea is to notify law enforcement officials in those countries that people are traveling," said Lungren, who called sex trafficking "a plague on our region and our nation."

The American Civil Liberties Union opposes the plan, saying it would be wrong to impose new restrictions on people who already have served their sentences.

However, Michael Macleod-Ball, the ACLU's chief legislative and policy counsel, said he fears the bill will pass because no one in Congress will want to cast a vote that could be interpreted as supporting sex offenders.

"Absolutely, we're worried about something like this passing because it's very easy to get a yes vote," he said. "Maybe we should say the converse: If you vote against something like this, you sort of stick out like a sore thumb."

Lungren said his bill is an attempt to get tough with U.S. sex offenders who leave the country and then commit similar crimes overseas.

The congressman, who represents the state's 3rd Congressional District, also is hoping to minimize sex trafficking, which he says is thriving in Sacramento, partly due to its intersecting interstate highways.

Nicholas Sensley, the chief of police in Truckee, a mountain town near the state's border with Nevada, authored human trafficking guidelines for the U.S. Justice Department. Sensley said Lungren's plan is good because it would fight sex offenders who move across borders "undetected, unnoticed and really, in a large part, unconcerned."

"It's really just another tool, bottom line, to put another clamp on those who are committing this crime," Sensley said.

Sensley is a recognized expert in the field, having established the first human trafficking task force in New York in 2001 and authoring human trafficking guidelines adopted by the U.S. Justice Department.

If Lungren's plan is passed, Sensley said, the most significant hurdle would be trying to gain the cooperation of other countries, many of which have different laws and different cultural norms.

"What we define in the United States as a sex offender may not necessarily be defined as such in other countries," Sensley said.

Partly because of the success of Megan's Law, Lungren said, sex offenders increasingly are preying on young victims overseas, where they're out of reach of U.S. law enforcement agencies. He said child sex tourism has evolved into a multibillion-dollar "industry" involving millions of children around the world, particularly in Mexico, South America and Southeast Asia.

"These cities are global hubs of human sex trafficking, where young children are bought, sold and abused in a manner that defies all human decency," Lungren said. "Recently, I was shocked to learn that many of these transactions are made with U.S. dollars and U.S.-issued credit cards."

Macleod-Ball, of the ACLU, said that there are always concerns about accuracy in a large database and that there would be lasting repercussions if anyone were mistakenly included. He said countries would have to work closely to make sure there's consistency about who's included, particularly since local laws can differ widely.

Lungren, who has yet to determine a cost estimate for his legislation, said he expects other countries to cooperate, citing Mexico's early involvement as an example. However, he said, only time will tell.

"We'll find out," he said. "I have very little sympathy for them if they think it's appropriate for 12-year-old kids to be forced to have sex with tourists. That's not my idea of tourism. I have no sympathy for it, and I think we ought to do everything we can to get rid of it."

Lungren, a member of the House of Representatives Judiciary Committee, worked to get California's Megan's Law passed when he was state attorney general in the 1990s. He often sponsored booths at fairs, where the public could punch in an address or a name to check for sex-related offenses. He said he often saw good results from making public information more accessible.

In one case, he said, "This woman was surprised to see that the man she was with, her boyfriend, was a registered sex offender.

"She had no idea."

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