No hiding place for released sex offenders

In the latest such incident to alarm civil-liberties activists, vigilantes in New Jersey this week tried to mete out their brand of instant justice on a paroled child molester - days after a controversial new state law took effect requiring reside nts tobe notified if such offenders moved to their neighbourhood.

At 3 am last Sunday, two men dressed in black broke into the house where the parolee Michael Groffe had come to live in Phillipsburg, 70 miles west of New York, saying they were looking for "the child molester". Several other people as well as Mr Groffe were in the house, and the intruders set upon the wrong man. Police were called and the two were arrested.

According to local prosecutors, the affair is the direct consequence of New Jersey's so-called "Megan's Law", named after a seven-year-old girl murdered in July 1994 by a neighbour whose previous sex crimes were unknown to local residents. The measure, rushed through the state assembly in time to come into force on 1 January, requires that local schools and youth organisations be notified if a convicted sex offender moves to their community.

The episode is far from the first of its kind. Similar examples of vigilante justice have been reported in Texas and Washington state. California and Illinois are just two of other states where courts have struck down legislation like that of New Jersey but insist that freed offenders must register with police.

Each time the basic conflict is the same; between society's desire to be protected against former convicts, especially sex offenders, who may repeat their crime, and the right of an individual to lead a normal life once he has been fully punished by the law. Either way, however, his chances of quiet haven are lessening - as another recently freed New Jersey sex offender is learning to his cost.

Carlos Diaz, who had served 12 years for rape, was released at the New Year. His lawyers successfully appealed against the application of "Megan's Law," which a judge held to be "unconstitutional added punishment". That was to reckon without the citizens' militia, the Guardian Angels, who distributed "most wanted"-style fliers to residents of Mr Diaz's former town. The police have not intervened.

"These laws just raise the level of fear, anxiety and anger," said a spokesman for the American Civil Liberties Union, "and they can foster a climate which can lead to vigilantism."

But with public anxiety over crime showing no sign of abating, vigilantism is only likely to increase. Many states have already passed "three strikes and you're out" laws imposing mandatory life imprisonment after a third serious offence.

Georgia indeed has brought in a "two strikes" law. As events in New Jersey show, even that may not be enough.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Senior Digital Marketing Consultant

£28000 - £45000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Senior Digital Marketing Cons...

Recruitment Genius: Assistant Stores Keeper

£16640 - £18500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An Assistant Stores Keeper is r...

Recruitment Genius: Claims Administrator

£16000 - £18500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an excellent opportunit...

Recruitment Genius: Software Developer - C# / ASP.NET / SQL

£17000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Developer required to join a bu...

Day In a Page

'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

Bread from heaven

Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

How 'the Axe' helped Labour

UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
Welcome to the world of Megagames

Welcome to the world of Megagames

300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

Vince Cable exclusive interview

Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
Russell Brand's interview with Ed Miliband has got everyone talking about The Trews

Everyone is talking about The Trews

Russell Brand's 'true news' videos attract millions of viewers. But today's 'Milibrand' interview introduced his resolutely amateurish style to a whole new crowd
Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

It's time for my close-up

Meet the man who films great whites for a living
Increasing numbers of homeless people in America keep their mobile phones on the streets

Homeless people keep mobile phones

A homeless person with a smartphone is a common sight in the US. And that's creating a network where the 'hobo' community can share information - and fight stigma - like never before
'Queer saint' Peter Watson left his mark on British culture by bankrolling artworld giants

'Queer saint' who bankrolled artworld giants

British culture owes a huge debt to Peter Watson, says Michael Prodger
Pushkin Prizes: Unusual exchange programme aims to bring countries together through culture

Pushkin Prizes brings countries together

Ten Scottish schoolchildren and their Russian peers attended a creative writing workshop in the Highlands this week
14 best kids' hoodies

14 best kids' hoodies

Don't get caught out by that wind on the beach. Zip them up in a lightweight top to see them through summer to autumn
Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The acceptable face of the Emirates

The acceptable face of the Emirates

Has Abu Dhabi found a way to blend petrodollars with principles, asks Robert Fisk