Updated September 25, 2000

Jacob, Megan, and Pam: Federal Sex Offender
Registration Legislation

David M. Heger
National Violence Against Women Prevention Research Center
University of Missouri - St. Louis
Political Analyst


In October 1989, 11-year-old Jacob Wetterling was abducted near his home in St. Joseph, Minnesota by a masked man at gunpoint. Police later learned that halfway houses in St. Joseph also housed released sex offenders. In 1989, Minnesota law enforcement had no comprehensive list of sex offenders to aid their efforts in solving the case. (Only a handful of states, including Alabama, Arizona, California, Florida, Nevada, and Ohio, had such tools at the time.) Jacob’s parents, through the formation of the Jacob Wetterling Foundation, helped push Minnesota policymakers to change this situation by enacting sex offender registration in 1991. Several states followed suit in establishing their own registration system — according to the Department of Justice (DOJ), 39 states had some form of sex offender registration in place by 1994. As the issue gained momentum nationally, Congress passed the Jacob Wetterling Crimes Against Children and Sex Offender Registration Act as part of the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994 (commonly referenced as the 1994 Crime Bill). The legislation, signed into law by President Clinton on September 13, 1994, mandates that each state create specific programs to register persons convicted of a criminal offense against a minor or a sexually violent offense.

Around the time of the final passage of the Jacob Wetterling Act, another hole in the criminal justice system — lack of community awareness of the presence of a convicted sex offender — was exposed by the case of seven-year-old Megan Kanka. On a mid-summer evening in 1994, Megan’s parents reported to the police that their daughter was missing from their neighborhood in Hamilton Township, New Jersey. After conducting a door-to-door search of the surrounding houses, police began to focus their investigation on a residence where three convicted sex offenders lived, located across the street from the Kankas. One of the men, Jesse Timmendequas, later confessed to the rape and murder of Megan Kanka. Determined to prevent similar occurrences, Megan’s parents spearheaded a campaign to enact legislation in New Jersey providing for community notification when sex offenders are released into a particular neighborhood. Their efforts proved fruitful and the state enacted "Megan’s Law" in 1995. As with the Jacob Wetterling Act, Congress caught on to state action and passed a federal version of Megan’s Law the following year. (Similar legislation was offered as an amendment to the 1994 Crime Bill but was rejected by members of Congress.)

Federal lawmakers continued to build upon the foundation of the Jacob Wetterling Act by enacting the Pam Lychner Sexual Offender Tracking and Identification Act of 1996. Senator Phil Gramm (R-Texas) and Senator Joseph Biden (D-Delaware) authored this proposal, named in memory of a victim’s rights activist who died in the infamous TWA Flight 800 crash off the coast of Long Island, New York, to create a national database of convicted sex offenders that would track sex offenders as they move from state to state and cover for states not in compliance with Jacob Wetterling. In arguing for the bill on the Senate floor, Senator Biden addressed non-compliance with sex offender registration mandates, "(I)f any states fail to act, we cannot allow there to be a ‘black hole’ where sexual predators can hide and are then lost to all states."

The Legislation

The Jacob Wetterling Act

The Jacob Wetterling Act is Subtitle A of Title XVII of the 1994 Crime Bill. Provisions of the act require persons convicted of a criminal offense against a minor or a sexually violent offense and persons deemed to be sexually violent predators to register a current address with state law enforcement. As defined by this act, sexually violent offenses include "aggravated sexual abuse" and "sexual abuse," which are legal terms used in U.S. code basically signifying rape. The act lists various acts that are considered criminal offenses against a minor, but ultimately discretion is left to the states. The act describes a "sexually violent predator" as one who is inflicted with "a mental abnormality or personality disorder that makes the person likely to engage in predatory sexually violent crimes."

Further provisions require state registration programs to inform released convicts under this act of their duty to register and keep law enforcement abreast of any address changes and to obtain fingerprints and a photograph of such convicts. State law enforcement agencies are also required to enter relevant information on a released convict into an appropriate record system, notify law enforcement having jurisdiction where such convict expects to reside, transmit the conviction data and fingerprints to the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), and verify the released convict’s address on each anniversary of the person’s initial registration date. Criminals under this act must continue to register for 10 years after the date of their release from prison. Finally, the legislation mandates that the data collected for its purposes remain undisclosed except among law enforcement and government agencies under certain circumstances. (This was later changed by the enactment of Megan’s Law — see below.)

The Jacob Wetterling Act gives states great leeway in executing a sex offender registration program. Beyond meeting the minimum requirements stated above, each state’s program may differ greatly, reflecting the specific concerns of state lawmakers. States are given 3-5 years from the 1994 enrollment to implement the legislation.

Megan’s Law

Megan’s Law amends the Jacob Wetterling Act of the 1994 Crime Bill. The legislation strikes provisions of the Crime Bill that prohibit disclosure of sex offender registry information and replaces it with language allowing the release of information "for any purpose permitted under the laws of the State." The last part of this is crucial: the law gives states the power to determine what kind and how much of the information is disclosed to whom and for what purpose. States may go as far as giving unfettered public access to sex offender information by publishing it on a state-funded Web site or a state may choose not to disclose any of the information at all. Another variable is whether states choose to release data on all types of sex offenders or just on "high-risk" criminals. Of course, as states pass different laws, litigation may succeed in curtailing some degree of disclosure allowed.

The Pam Lychner Act

The Pam Lychner Act shores up the provisions of the Jacob Wetterling Act, which requires state law enforcement to transmit sex offender data and fingerprints to the FBI, by establishing at the FBI a national database of released sex offenders to track their whereabouts and movement. Provisions mandate persons convicted sexual offenses in states that do not have a "minimally sufficient" registration program to register with the FBI a current address, fingerprints, and current photograph. Additionally, the legislation amends the Jacob Wetterling Act by changing the duration of state registration requirement from 10 years to 10 years or life, depending on the number of prior convictions and the type of crime committed.

On-line Resources

Text of Jacob Wetterling Act (final version in 1994 Crime Bill)


Text of Megan’s Law (final version)


Text of Pam Lychner Act (final version)


Jacob Wetterling Foundation


Parents for Megan’s Law


Proceedings of the National Conference on Sex Offender Registries
(April 1998)

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