Neighborhood watch or watching too closely?

Megan’s Law, enacted in California in 1996, aims to arm parents with an important weapon to protect their children from sexual abuse: information.

Not threats. Not pitchforks. Nothing in Megan’s Law enables or encourages violence or harassment, despite what its critics have tried to argue. And last week, the U.S. Supreme Court handed down a ruling affirming what parents around the country have known for years: Megan’s Law is a valuable and constitutional tool for protecting children.

In 1994, 7-year-old Megan Kanka was raped and murdered by her neighbor, a twice-convicted sex offender of whom Megan’s family had not been aware. They began a nationwide campaign to give parents hope of preventing assaults like this from happening again. Now each of the 50 states has a law named for Megan Kanka that provides a way for people to consult their local law enforcement agency’s sex offender registry, a database of convicted sex offenders released from prison.

California law allows adults and organizations to learn the names and aliases of registered sex offenders, along with information such as their age, sex, physical description and possibly a photograph, crimes resulting in registration and zip code of residence of sex offenders in their communities. This year, San Diego county also introduced a Web site with a clickable map that lets parents know the general area (within a few blocks) where sex offenders live.

The reasons for instituting and maintaining such a system should be obvious. It is to be hoped that by alerting parents to the proximity of sex offenders in their area, they are encouraged to better protect their children by having important discussions about talking to strangers. Furthermore, parents who are aware that a sex offender is living in their neighborhood can take that into account when establishing rules for their child. For example, they may not wish to allow their son or daughter to ride his or her bike around the neighborhood alone if there is a convicted sex offender living just around the corner.

Critics of Megan’s Law charge that making registry information public is tantamount to branding sex offenders — who have already paid their debt to society and are therefore deserving of no more punishment — with a scarlet letter. They speak of potential harassment, attacks and discrimination.

The potential exists, but its severity is blown out of proportion. The idea that concerned parents who go down to the local police station to learn the general location of sex offenders would then hop into their minivans and begin patrolling the streets in search of some warped vigilante justice is ridiculous. It is an equally hysterical charge to assume that because a San Diegan knows that a sex offender lives within a three-block radius of his or her home, she will harass or discriminate against anyone he or she thinks is “”creepy-looking”” in the neighborhood.

In the end, harassment or violent acts against known or suspected sex offenders are illegal, and community members viewing sex offender maps or registry entries are instructed not to use this knowledge for illegal purposes. While social ostracism is a small possibility, that is not the law’s intent, nor is it serious enough to warrant the label of unconstitutionality. “”The publicity may cause adverse consequences for the convicted defendants, running from mild personal embarrassment to social ostracism,”” wrote U.S. Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy in the majority opinion, but the laws are intended “”to inform the public for its own safety, not to humiliate the offender.”” It’s the intent of a law that determines its constitutionality, not its relatively mild effects.

What the controversy over Megan’s Law boils down to is a matter of balancing the risk involved in either scenario. On the one hand, we have parents who are unaware of danger that may lurk down the street, threats to their children’s well-being and lives; on the other, we have the slight possibility of community members getting the cold shoulder at a neighborhood potluck. Obviously, it is up to California voters whether or not Megan’s Law, now ruled constitutional, should remain on the books. However, the benefit of knowledge and the potential for increased safety here outweighs the benefit of privacy and the potential for embarrassment.