Bill Would Provide Resources and Training to Parole Officers, Change Juvenile Sexting Penalties
TRENTON – Senator Linda R. Greenstein, Senate President Steve Sweeney and Senator Kevin O’Toole announced today they have introduced legislation to revise and strengthen Megan’s Law to improve community supervision of convicted sex offenders and to better protect New Jersey’s children. The legislation also updates the law based on improved electronic communication and would ensure that minors who sext are not placed on the sex offender registry for life.
“Nineteen years ago, when Megan’s Law was initially established here in New Jersey, it would have been impossible to predict modern advances in technology from the commonplace of cell phones and tablets to the widespread availability of Wi-Fi,” said Senator Greenstein, D-Middlesex and Mercer. “With these technological advances come new concerns for our children’s safety. Parents must now be vigilant against sexual predators both when their children are outside and inside the home, because luring and sexual advances can happen on computers and phones in living rooms and bedrooms. We need to arm our law enforcement – including parole officers – with the skills, training and tools to effectively monitor those convicted of sex crimes to ensure the continued safety of our kids.”
“The State Parole Board has the daunting task of monitoring convicted sex offenders throughout the state under Megan’s Law. Their efforts protect our children, notify families of dangerous individuals in their neighborhoods and ensure that sex offenders do not recommit these heinous crimes and harm another child,” said Senate President Steve Sweeney, D-Gloucester, Cumberland and Salem. “As the sex offender registry continues to grow and as technology continues to change, we must update our laws to ensure that law enforcement has the resources necessary to successfully monitor those on the registry and to address new threats to our children.”
“This measure empowers New Jersey’s parole officers to defend families from the most-cowardly society of perpetrators, who try to use the secrecy of the internet to stalk innocent children,” said Senator O’Toole, R-Essex, Bergen, Morris and Passaic. “These predators feed off each other, sharing new tactics and using advancing technologies. We must ensure that going forward our law enforcement officers are as best prepared as possible.”
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.
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 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.
“This legislation will greatly reduce the caseloads of our parole officers so they can effectively monitor convicted sex offenders,” said Senate President Sweeney. “Hopefully, with more manageable caseloads, parole officers can prevent another terrible crime from occurring.”
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.
“Families and communities suffer enough when these predators strike,” said Senator O’Toole. “Sex offenders should be financially responsible for their own reprehensible actions.”
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.
“It is terrifying that sexting is becoming more common among young people,” said Senator Greenstein. “Often teenagers – without thinking through the consequences of their actions – take an inappropriate photo and forward it onto friends. While we need to educate kids of the effects – both legal and psychological – that can occur from sexting, labeling them as pedophiles for the rest of their lives is not going to correct the situation.”
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 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 be 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 offenders moves into a new neighborhood.
The bill has been referenced to the Senate Law and Public Safety Committee.