It has been 20 years since New Jersey enacted Megan’s Law, which require convicted sex offenders to register with local authorities in the community where they live. Whether and to what extent the law has accomplished anything remains a hotly debated subject.
Briefly, the law requires, among other things, that convicted sex offenders undergo an assessment that is supposedly geared towards determining their risk of re-offending. Offenders in the lowest tier (one) are placed under what is considered to be the most lenient level of supervision. Offenders in tiers two and three are supervised more strictly, and appear on the New Jersey State Police Internet Sex Offender Registry. The other States and the Federal system have enacted similar laws.
A State-wide army of parole officers are charged with supervising convicted sex offenders throughout New Jersey. Once an offender is placed under parole supervision, the parole officer responsible for their case has tremendous latitude over where they can live and work and what kind of job they can have. An offender’s parole officer can also restrict their ability to socialize with minors, even if the latter are members of the offender’s own family. It is extremely difficult to challenge the actions of a parole officer. Typically, the offender must receive a determination from the parole board that denies their request to adjust the terms or conditions of their supervision. That determination must then be appealed to the Appellate Division of the New Jersey Superior Court. The overall process of challenging restrictions can easily take a year or more.
The experience of the last 20 years has demonstrated that the value of the system created by Megan’s Law is, at best, highly questionable. First, parole officers have tremendous latitude over the manner in which they supervise offenders. My experience representing convicted sex offenders has shown repeatedly that while many of the parole officers conduct themselves like law enforcement professionals, others act in a manner that can only be described as sadistic. I had one client (a tier one offender) who threatened to commit suicide because of the number of truly needless restrictions his parole officer placed upon him. Upon hearing this, his parole officer laughed at him and told him to go right ahead. (I probably still have the name of the officer in my file, if anyone at the parole board is really interested.) The incident highlights one of the primary problems with Megan’s Law. Who is supervising the parole officers? At least some of them clearly realize that they are overseeing the conduct of some of least sympathetic offenders in the justice system, that nobody will seriously question their requirements, and that they can therefore do whatever they want. A system that makes it needlessly difficult for an offender to maintain a decent job, live in a decent home and, where possible, have regular contact with a family support network, only increases the likelihood of re-offense. Additionally, while many sex offenders clearly require ongoing supervision, there is something fundamentally unfair about telling this group of offenders that we expect them to live in the community, while at the same time overburdening them with restrictions that make it impossible for them to do just that.
Further, the overwhelming majority of offenders are in tier one, and their likelihood of re-offending is therefore very low. In fact, given their respective cases and their personal situations, many of these individuals will never re-offend. The law really should target offenders that are at a greater risk of re-offending in a more surgical manner, but does not do so. Rather, it casts a very broad net that captures all convicted sex offenders in one way or another – those at a high risk of re-offending, as well as those who will almost certainly never re-offend. The administrative apparatus required to operate the system is very large and costly. This raises the question of whether the State funds devoted to Megan’s Law supervision are being spent wisely, and the extent to which the system created by this law consumes valuable law enforcement resources that could be used more effectively elsewhere.
Finally, there is almost no data demonstrating that Megan’s Law has accomplished its essential purpose, which is to prevent sex offenders from re-offending. A 2008 Justice Department study found that Megan’s Law did not prevent first-time offenders from engaging in the conduct that resulted in their conviction, and did not prevent re-offending. Thus, the report concluded that “[d]espite widespread community support for [Megan’s Law and similar State and Federal laws], there is virtually no evidence to their effectiveness.”
A pending bill in the New Jersey Senate would end the three-tier system, lump all three tiers into a single group, and place every convicted sex offender in the State on the Internet registry. In light of the foregoing, such a law will take a bad situation and only make it worse.