Juvenile sex offenders can no longer be required to register as such for the rest of their lives, as the state Supreme Court on Tuesday called that aspect of what is known as Megan’s law unconstitutional.
Two of the attorneys who argued successfully on behalf of a man known only as C.K., who was a juvenile when he was convicted of sexually assaulting his younger brother, said the decision should prompt lawmakers to revisit the application of Megan’s Law — at least when it comes to juveniles.
“We know the harms of registration are profound and numerous, and because of all that, this is a failed public policy, a dangerous public policy that harms children,” said Laura Cohen, director of the Criminal and Youth Justice Clinic at Rutgers Law School in Newark. “We need to rethink this.”
Violation of due process
The unanimous court ruled that requiring a juvenile found guilty of the most serious sexual offenses to meet the registration and community notification requirements for life, with no eligibility to be removed from the offenders’ list, violates due process. Instead, they can ask the court to be removed from the registry after 15 years if they have not re-offended and are no longer considered a danger.
“Permanently barring juveniles who have committed certain sex offenses from petitioning for relief from the Megan’s Law requirements bears no rational relationship to a legitimate governmental objective,” wrote Justice Barry Albin for the court. “When, in the case of juveniles, the remedial purpose of Megan’s Law — rehabilitation of the offender and protection of the public — is satisfied, then the continued constraints on their lives and liberty … long after they have become adults, takes on a punitive aspect that cannot be justified by our Constitution.”
The court relied on testimony from several witnesses and a number of studies that have found juveniles who commit sex offenses “are more likely to act impulsively and be motivated by sexual curiosity” and that they “are more amenable to rehabilitation and less likely to reoffend than adult sex offenders,” according to the decision.
Morristown lawyer James H. Maynard, who represented C.K., said fewer than 3 percent of juvenile sex offenders go on to reoffend, which is “about the same rate as the risk someone in the general public has of offending.” Cohen, who had argued on behalf of ending lifetime registration for juvenile offenders as a friend of the court, said most of what the law calls sexual assault by juveniles is part of adolescent sexual experimentation and exploration.
“These are not predatory sex offenders,” she said.
C.K., the plaintiff in the case, was 15 when he began sexually assaulting his adopted brother, who was 7 at the time and reported the abuse several years later. The state charged C.K., then 23, with aggravated sexual assault while he was still a minor. To prevent being tried as an adult, C.K. agreed to plead guilty and in 2003 was sentenced to a term of three years’ probation and attending sex-offender treatment, as well as complying with Megan’s Law.
Legacy of Megan’s law
Enacted in 1994 just three months after a repeat child sex offender raped and killed his 7-year old neighbor Megan Kanka, the law revamped sex assault statutes to enact tougher penalties and require community notification when the offenders considered the most dangerous move into a neighborhood. A similar law was enacted nationally two years later.
New Jersey, as other states, has an online searchable registry of sex offenders that includes the person’s name and address, his picture as well as a description, information about all vehicles owned and the person’s risk level. Those found guilty of aggravated sexual assault, kidnapping, sexual assault of a minor, and similar offenses face lifetime registration. According to Parents for Megan’s Law and The Crime Victims Center, New Jersey had about 18,000 offenders on its registry in 2016. “Many of our laws go far beyond what is necessary to protect the public in these matters,” Maynard said. “The big misconception is that sex offenders have a high recidivism rate, that they remain a danger and can’t help themselves. That’s all false, completely false … We must change our laws to reflect the science.”
Being on the registry can have a profound effect on a person, particularly a juvenile, according to lawyers who argued on behalf of C.K.
Profile of an offender
The decision states that C.K. received an undergraduate degree in psychology and master’s degree in counseling. He had been a teacher’s assistant for autistic children when he was arrested and since then has stopped working with children. He has worked at a nonprofit agency that helps adults with mental illness get such services as psychological treatment and housing, but has “turned down opportunities for professional advancement from fear that a background check might ‘out’ his status as a Megan’s Law registrant.” He is now 38.
His continued “tainted” status as a sex offender, according to the opinion, “has permeated various spheres of his life — professional, personal, and social. He often feels isolated and depressed … He despairs that the permanent designation of sex offender registrant will impair his ability to fully participate in the lives of his children, if he one day has a family.”
It has been more than 14 years since he pled guilty and, under the decision, will soon be eligible to petition the court to be relieved of registering as a sex offender. It is unclear how many other juvenile offenders will also be affected by the decision.
Albin enumerated several reasons why it is important to give former juvenile offenders the chance to be removed from the offender registry, beginning with the fact that since the passage of Megan’s Law “scientific and sociological studies have shined new light on adolescent brain development and on the recidivism rates of juvenile sex offenders compared to adult offenders.” Further, “age tempers the impetuosity, immaturity, and shortsightedness of youth.”
Being labeled an offender permanently “will impair a juvenile, as he grows into adulthood, from gaining employment opportunities, finding acceptance in his community, developing a healthy sense of self-worth, and forming personal relationships. In essence, the juvenile registrant will forever remain a social pariah … They must carry this stigma even if they can prove that they pose no societal threat.”
Cohen said there are “profound harms” in registration. For instance, a juvenile offender cannot live in public housing, cannot live with a juvenile sibling, and cannot live on campus at college. Because they are often ostracized, they have a disproportionately high suicide rate.
“The inception of these laws followed very high profile, very tragic cases that were anomalous at the time,” Cohen said. “They gave rise to absolutely strong public opinion. Probably in this particular situation, as is often the case, the response was disproportionate to the harm it sought to prevent.”