Greenstein-Sweeney Legislation To Modernize Megan’s Law Clears Committee

A view of the Senate Chambers from the 2010-2011 Senate Reorganization.

Bill Would Provide Resources and Training to Parole Officers, Change Juvenile Sexting Penalties

TRENTON – Legislation sponsored by Senator Linda R. Greenstein and Senate President Steve Sweeney that would revise and strengthen Megan’s Law to improve community supervision of convicted sex offenders and to better protect New Jersey’s children cleared the Senate Law and Public Safety Committee today. The legislation also updates the law based on advances in electronic communication and would ensure that minors who sext are not placed on the sex offender registry for life.

“In the aftermath of Megan Kanka’s murder nearly twenty years ago, New Jersey led the nation in implementing a sex offender registry that supplies parents with vital information of dangerous living in their neighborhood in order to protect children from repeat sexual predators,” said Senator Greenstein, D-Middlesex and Mercer. “Since that time, we have seen the widespread use of computers, cell phones and tablets and parents must now be even more vigilant against sexual predators because luring and sexual advances can happen on computers and phones in living rooms and bedrooms. Because of these changes in society, the way law enforcement must conduct oversight has changed dramatically. This legislation will ensure that they have the tools necessary to stop another horrific crime from occurring.”

The bill, S-2636, would provide training to parole officers to better prepare them to identify supervised sex offenders who are using electronic devices in unlawful activities. The officers would receive instruction in determining if supervised sex offenders have illegally used computers or telecommunications devices to commit unlawful or criminal acts; in forensic recovery, evidence preservation and analysis of data in computer systems seized because of possible criminal activity; in monitoring the use of interactive computer services by supervised sex offenders; and in cooperating with other law enforcement agencies to coordinate efforts in investigating and prosecuting unlawful computer activity by supervised sex offenders.

“When Megan’s Law was first signed into law 19 years ago, we could never have predicted the modern advances in technology where nearly everyone is online. While we have made strides to ensure that sex offenders are not using computers and cell phones to prey on our children, there is still more to be done,” said Senate President Sweeney, D-Gloucester, Cumberland and Salem. “We need to arm law enforcement with the training and tools necessary to address these new threats to our children and to monitor the state’s sex offenders to ensure that they are not using electronic means to prey on kids.”

A 2007 law, sponsored by then-Assemblywoman Greenstein and co-sponsored by Senate President Sweeney, outlawed the use of the Internet for sex offenders who were convicted of using the Web to commit their crime. The Senators note that this bill will help to train parole officers to better enforce this legislation.

In an effort to reduce caseloads of parole officers and ensure adequate oversight of the state’s sex offenders, the bill would limit the number of sex offender parolees within an officer’s caseload to 40. According to the State Parole Board website, New Jersey’s Sex Offender Management Unit of more than 45,000 sex offenders makes up nearly a third of the parole caseload with roughly 45 new sex offenders added to the caseload each month. Recently, the President of the State Parole Officers Union, Thomas Lambert, stated that offender-to-officer ratio in New Jersey has approached a 100-1 ratio. The bill would require the Chairman of the State Parole Board to hire or train additional parole officers to supervise sex offenders until the caseload of each officer is 40 parolees or less.

The bill incorporates a revenue stream to ensure the continued supervision and monitoring of sex offenders. Under the bill, a $30 per month penalty would be imposed on every person convicted of a sex offense. The money would go to pay for expenses incurred in supervising sex offenders, including but not limited to, additional staff, equipment for monitoring offenders such as GPS devices, and purchasing equipment to expand the Parole Board’s ability to supervise offenders.

The bill would also provide that a juvenile who has committed a sexting offense would not be required to register as a sex offender. Sexting is the act of creating, exhibiting or distributing nude photographs through an electronic communication device such as a cell phone or computer. According to an Associated Press-MTV poll, one in four teenagers has been involved in naked sexting. While the Senators note that sexting has severe consequences, they feel that this lapse in judgment should not destroy a juvenile’s life.

The bill makes additional revisions to Megan’s Law including:

  • Upgrading the crime of sexual assault – a crime of the third degree – against a person with an intellectual or permanent physical ability to aggravated sexual assault – a crime of the second degree – which is punishable by five to ten years in prison and/or $150,000 fine;
  • Prohibiting tier-two sex offenders who have shown repetitive, compulsive behavior from invoking a statutory exception to keep his or her name off the Internet registry. Currently all of tier three – high risk to reoffend – and some of tier two – moderate risk to re-offend – are placed on the Internet database; and
  • Permitting a person who was given Community Supervision for Life, and commits a subsequent sex offense, to be given a special sentence of Parole Supervision for Life. Community Supervision for Life applies to certain sex offenses committed from 1994 to 2004. A person who violates provisions of this program is committing a criminal offense and must go through a criminal proceeding for additional punishment. Since 2004, sex offenders have been sentenced to Parole Supervision for Life. Parole supervision differs from Community Supervision in that a violation of this program is considered a parole violation; therefore punishment is an administrative function not requiring a criminal proceeding.

Megan’s Law was passed in 1994, only one-month after the sexual assault and murder of seven-year-old Hamilton resident Megan Kanka by her neighbor, a repeat sex offender. The law requires sex offenders to register with local law enforcement and, depending upon the severity of their crime, requires law enforcement to notify community members when a sex offender moves into a new neighborhood.

The bill was approved by the Law and Public Safety Committee with a vote of 3-0-2. It now heads to the Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee for further consideration.

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