A version of the sex offender registration and notification laws rooted in the murder of a seven-year-old Hamilton girl could soon be implemented across the world.
The House on Monday night passed “International Megan’s Law,” a bill sponsored by US Rep. Chris Smith (R-4th Dist.) that would “take away the secrecy” and notify law enforcement agencies in other countries about the travel plans of convicted and registered sex offenders.
About 4,500 US passports were issued to registered sex offenders in 2008, according to the Government Accountability Office, which Smith said was a sign that many sex offenders look to prey on victims in foreign countries.
“It’s all about very good vigilance,” Smith said in an interview on Tuesday. “It’s secrecy that enables all of this. Secrecy is how these people exploit and, unfortunately, we’re seeing a growing amount of sex tourism. They hop on planes and go to places for a week or two and abuse little children.”
The bill strengthens “Operation Angel Watch,” an arm of the Department of Homeland Security, and authorizes it to create a communications strategy with other countries.
Smith said the bill urges the president to reach bilateral agreements and memorandums of understanding with other nations on training and procedures upon notification, including the denial of a visa.
The new “Angel Watch Center” would focus on sex offenders who are likely to commit another sex crime, usually those ranked as second- or third-tier offenders, Smith said.
“If you do a data dump, nothing gets done. You want people to say, ‘he’s not coming in,’” Smith said. “We’re talking about people who have a likely propensity to recommit these crimes.”
Smith began trying to apply Megan’s Law across international boundaries in 2008 he met with a group from Thailand on human trafficking, an issue he has tried to combat throughout his time in Congress.
“If we told you a convicted pedophile was coming to Bangkok, what would you do,” Smith asked them.
“We wouldn’t let them in,” the Thailand activists responded, and Smith realized that such a framework needed to exist.
“The idea behind this is to get Megan’s Law stirred up in countries around the world,” Smith said. “A few have something close to it, but most do not.
“Pedophiles from the U.S. can travel to those countries and pedophiles from those countries can come to the U.S. and abuse our children,” he said.
The bill is modeled after Megan’s Law legislation already in place throughout the United States, which requires convicted sex offenders to register in national and statewide databases and notify law enforcement of any changes in residence or employment.
The laws were passed in reaction to the 1994 rape and murder of seven-year-old Megan Nicole Kanka of Hamilton, who was lured in by neighbor Jesse Timmendequas, a twice-convicted sex offender whose past the Kankas were unaware of. Timmendequas was convicted in 1997 and sentenced to death, but his sentence was commuted to life in prison without the possibility of parole after the state abolished the death penalty in 2007.
New Jersey was the first state to pass Megan’s Law, which requires convicted sex offenders to notify law enforcement agencies of any change in residence or employment upon their release from prison.
Two years later, former President Bill Clinton signed into law the first nationwide Megan’s Law, an amendment to the Jacob Wetterling Crimes Against Children and Sexually Violent Offender Registration Act.
“Had the Kankas known the guy living across the street, who had been to their home many times, there would have been a different outcome,” Smith said.
Maureen and Richard Kanka, a Hamilton school board member, were on hand when Smith introduced an earlier version of the International Megan’s Law later that year but the Senate never voted on the bill.
The House also passed the bill last year but the Senate did not vote on it.
“This could be exploited by all kinds of people. We want to make sure we keep out of this country those who would exploit it,” Smith said.
International Megan’s Law was one of Smith’s two human trafficking bills passed by the House on Monday. The other bill, the Human Trafficking Prioritization Act, would ramp up American anti-trafficking efforts by creating the “Bureau to Combat Trafficking in Persons” within the State Department.
By turning the State Department’s human trafficking office into a bureau, it ensures an equal voice in any discussions — a direct line to the Secretary of State, instead of going through intermediaries.
“They get to be at the table and fight inside those important conferences,” Smith said. “They have diplomatic capabilities within the State Department to fight for an honest appraisal of a country’s human trafficking network as well as what the penalties should be for egregious behavior.”