How to stop crime? Megan’s Law as a strategic approach to crime prevention in the USA

Term Paper (Advanced seminar) 2005 20 Pages

American Studies - Culture and Applied Geography



1. Introduction

2. Definitions
2.1. Definition of crime
2.2. Definition of crime prevention

3. Classifying crime prevention

4. Megan’s Law
4.1. The history of Megan’s Law
4.2. Different versions of Megan’s Law
4.3. The pros and cons of Megan’s Law

5. Conclusion

1. Introduction

The United States is known worldwide for its serious crime problem. “Nobody knows exactly what the actual crime rate is in America but everybody knows it is too high.”[1] In fact, total crime rates in the USA are significantly higher than in other industrialized countries. By 1998, nearly six million people – almost 3% of the adult population – were under some form of correctional supervision.[2] These developments have had important consequences for criminal justice institutions. More than 1000 new prisons have been built in the United States since 1980[3]. Today state prisons are forced to operate above their capacity.

If you have a closer look at the criminal justice system of the United States you could get the impression that crime is the product and punishment is the answer. Especially conservative politicians, together with the mass media and activists in the victim rights movement advanced that the criminal justice system has become more and more punitive since the late 1960s. This development is documented at great length. In order to explain the increasing crime rates, most criminologists and sociologists have devoted their attention to examining the causes of crime. The scientific and public discussion about how to stop crime is going to be continued because there is no definitive recipe for a safer society. Nevertheless, it is undisputed that crime must be prevented.

This paper deals with Megan’s Law which was enacted in the United States to prevent the victimization of children. It is America’s first law authorizing public notification when dangerous sex offenders are released into the community. Firstly, I will define the terms crime and crime prevention to come to a better understanding of this complex theme. Secondly, I will examine several attempts to define crime prevention. Thirdly, I will compare the arguments for and against Megan’s Law in order to answer the following questions: Is this law really helpful to protect the society against sexual abuse? And, if this is not the case: what could be done to prevent and even reduce sexual abuse? Finally, I will make a concluding assessment and give a short summary of the themes explored in this paper.

2. Definitions

2.1. Definition of crime

A term like crime is not easy to define. Even criminologists attach different meanings to the term. In the broadest legal sense, a crime, in most countries, is “an act committed in violation of law forbidding it and for which a court may impose a variety of punishments including imprisonment, death, fine or removal from office.”[4] In other words in the USA crime is a wrongdoing classified by the state or congress as a felony or misdemeanor.

In the USA a felony is a serious crime which can be punished by at least one year in prison. Some felonies include murder, rape, kidnapping and custodial interference. A misdemeanor is “a crime for which the punishment is usually a fine and/or up to one year in a county jail.”[5] Often a crime which is a misdemeanor for the first offense becomes a felony for repeated offenses. People convicted of felonies can lose certain rights, such as their liberty, the right to vote or hold public office. During the term of sentence, the convicted person may also be prohibited from making contracts, marrying, suing or keeping certain professional licenses. Upon release from prison, the convict may also be required to register with the police.

Another fundamental categorization divides criminal acts into two classes, mala in se and mala prohibita[6]. Some offenses such as homicide, are considered to be "wrong in themselves" (mala in se) and inherently evil. Mala prohibita offenses, such as drug abuse or gambling, are considered criminal because society seeks to regulate these particular types of behavior.

Ideally, the punishment for crimes should be scaled according to the severity of the offenses. In the USA murder, for example, is widely considered an offense meriting life imprisonment or even the death penalty. Some harmful offenses are not punished as serverely as others. White-collar offenses, for example, despite the fact that they often involve large sums of money and affect great numbers of people, commonly bring shorter terms of imprisonment than such offenses as armed robbery or burglary. “The reason for this disparity is often the social status of the offender: a bank president who has embezzled bank funds is not usually viewed as a common criminal.“[7]

2.2. Definition of crime prevention

There will probably never be a universally accepted definition of crime prevention. And there is no consensus on what crimes should be included in prevention programs. The broadest definition of crime prevention is one which includes any activity which reduces crime. Of course, this definition is too wide ranging, because it includes the possible deterrent or preventive effects of imprisonment as well as factors that are unrelated to the criminal justice system, such as improvements in the economic situation, the environment and society in general.

So what does crime prevention exactly mean? Is it just an alternative to the criminal justice system with all its punishments or is it possibly the only way to fight all crime successfully? As for the term crime, it is difficult to find a clear definition for crime prevention. Some scientists suggest that “crime prevention should be restricted to activities other than those undertaken by the criminal justice system”[8], but in practice it is quite difficult to exclude criminal justice agencies, particularly the police, whose main function is to prevent crimes and to protect the society. Furthermore, there is also the problem of defining the broad area of activity covered by the concept of crime prevention.

In my view, John Graham and Trevor Bennett suggest one of the best and most interesting definitions of crime prevention. According to them, “crime prevention represents a way of thinking rather than any kind of definable action, and a shift away from traditional, formal methods of crime and towards new, informal methods.”[9] In this way crime prevention is understood as a continuing process of collecting useful and wise ideas. This process includes everybody who has the intention to make this world a safer place to live.

3. Classifying crime prevention

There have been several other attempts to classify crime prevention. The scientist John Eklblom (1994), for example, has developed a “mechanism-based” classification. He claims that crime can be prevented by manipulating the components of criminal events. He identifies three levels of activity[10]:

(i) the kinds of crime prevention method and the causal mechanism it aims to influence;
(ii) the target of the intervention in terms of whether it is the situation or the offender; and
(iii) the types of crime which the strategy aims to prevent.


[1] Bonza 1993: 1

[2] Beckett/Sesson 2000: 3

[3] Beckett/Sesson 2000: 3

[4] www.totse.com/en/politics/political_spew/crime.html

[5] www.totse.com/en/politics/political_spew/crime.html

[6] www.totse.com/en/politics/political_spew/crime.html

[7] www.totse.com/en/politics/political_spew/crime.html

[8] Beckett/Sesson 2000: 5

[9] Bennett/Graham 1995: 5


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Ernst Moritz Arndt University of Greifswald – Anglistik/Amerikanistik




Title: How to stop crime? Megan’s Law as a strategic approach to crime prevention in the USA