There are currently more than 15,000 individuals who are registered as sex offenders in New Jersey under Megan’s Law, which was signed into law 20 years ago. Of those 15,000, about 4,085 have been categorized in the top two tiers of the registry, meaning that each of those individuals has been found by a Superior Court judge to pose a moderate to high risk of re-offending.
Those placed in the third tier — the majority — are categorized as low-risk and are not required to have their names and personal information listed on the state website. However, a bill introduced in the state Senate in March would end the risk-based system and increase the number of names listed on the New Jersey Internet registry to include individuals in the low-risk tier.
Megan’s Law is already controversial, and the new bill is expected to encounter challenges. In fact, the U.S. Justice Department funded a 2008 study whose authors concluded that “there is virtually no evidence” that Megan’s Law has been effective in preventing recidivism or first-time sex offenses.
Given the employment and housing difficulties already faced by registered sex offenders, broadening the Internet registry requirement to include individuals who pose little to no risk to the community would seem counterproductive.
Many of the individuals listed in the third, low-risk tier have been convicted of statutory rape — or, specifically, criminal sexual contact with a minor. In these cases, the alleged victim is younger than 16, which is the age of legal consent in New Jersey, and the defendant is four or more years older. Neither of the parties may have been aware that what they were doing was illegal, and the sexual contact may have otherwise been consensual. Still, the defendant faces the possibility of prison time and sex offender registration, even if there is little to no chance of re-offending.
The bill currently being considered in the state Senate would require low-risk individuals, such as young people convicted of criminal sexual contact, to be listed on the Internet registry along with individuals who have been classified as high-risk. New Jersey residents may want to follow the debate as lawmakers consider this controversial bill.