TRENTON, N.J. (CN) – The New Jersey Supreme Court found it unconstitutional Tuesday to bar sex offenders who were convicted as juveniles from ever being able to terminate the lifetime registration requirements of Megan’s Law.
Enacted in 1994 after a 7-year-old girl in New Jersey was raped and murdered by her neighbor, who had been a juvenile sex offender, Megan’s Law includes requirements for sex offenders to register and in most cases notify residents when moving nearby. As New Jersey continued to sharpen its law over the next decade, including the addition of lifetime registration for nearly all sex offenders, the landmark legislation spawned similar policies across the country.
But Tuesday’s ruling from the unanimous New Jersey Supreme Court says new studies on sex offenders, and obvious perceptions about juvenile immaturity and impulsivity, suggest that lifetime punishment for this population does more harm than good.
“Indeed, categorical lifetime notification and registration requirements may impede a juvenile’s rehabilitative efforts and stunt his ability to become a healthy and integrated adult member of society,” Justice Barry Albin wrote for the seven-person court.
The 49-page ruling goes on to extol recent precedent that has embraced the idea “that juveniles do not possess immutable psychological or behavioral characteristics.”
“That body of jurisprudence and the evidentiary record in this case tell us that adolescents are works in progress and that age tempers the impetuosity, immaturity, and shortsightedness of youth,” Albin added. “They tell us that, generally, juvenile sex offenders are less likely to reoffend than adult sex offenders and that the likelihood of recidivism is particularly low for those who have not reoffended for a long period of time. They tell us that the permanent status of sex-offender registrant 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.”
Tuesday’s ruling came in a challenge to the law by C.K., as he is identified in court documents. More than two decades ago, when C.K. was 15, he forced his 7-year-old adopted brother, A.K., to perform oral sex on him. C.K. was charged years later at age 23 after A.K., then 16, reported his brother’s abuse to a priest and then to police.
As part of a guilty plea, C.K. was sentenced to probation and sex-offender treatment, as well as an order barring him from contacting his brother or from working with children.
At the time, C.K. was a teacher’s assistant working with autistic children. Classified as a low-risk Tier-One offender, C.K. eventually he began working at a nonprofit, but turned down promotions, fearing that he might be “outed” as a Megan’s Law registrant.
In 2008 and again in 2012 C.K. petitioned to deregister with the Megan’s Law registry. For his second effort, he summoned five witnesses to testify about juvenile sex offender recidivism. One of the studies cited found that only 7 percent of 11,200 juvenile sex offenders re-offended, and that the recividism rate among C.K.’s specific peers was much less.
C.K. himself was assessed by several psychologists and found to be at a low risk of recidivism.
Tuesday’s ruling by the New Jersey Supreme Court came after a panel of the Appellate Division affirmed denial of C.K.’s second petition.
State officials claimed that C.K.’s depression and fear of being “outed” was overstated, since he was a Tier-One offender and did not have to comply with Megan’s Law’s notification requirements or the public database.
The New Jersey Attorney General added in an amicus brief that only the state Legislature can amend Megan’s Law.
The ACLU’s New Jersey chapter, as well as the Juvenile Law Center and Public Defender, filed amicus briefs supporting C.K.’s argument that the lifetime registration — passed by the state in 2001 and applied to juveniles older than 14 — was unconstitutional.
Agreeing with these arguments, the New Jersey Supreme Court opted Tuesday to reinstate an older provision that requires juvenile sex offenders to register for only 15 years before allowing them to apply for de-registration.
C.K., now 38, has been deemed not likely to commit another sex offense, and poses little risk to the public, Albin wrote. As he has passed the 15-year mark since the date of his arrest, he can apply a third time to de-register. C.K.’s attorney James Maynard of Maynard & Sumner says his client will be able to reapply for de-registration this fall.
Albin cited other landmark cases in which the U.S. Supreme Court struck down laws allowing capital punishment for juveniles, life sentences without parole for juveniles in nonhomicide cases, and mandating life without parole for juveniles convicted of homicide.
In concluding that lifetime registration violates the due process rights of juvenile offenders, Albin noted that the provision “is grounded on the irrebuttable
presumption that juveniles adjudicated delinquent for committing certain sex offenses will forever pose a danger to society.”
“That irrebuttable presumption disregards any individual assessment of whether a particular registrant is likely to reoffend, long after the adjudication and long after the juvenile has become an adult,” the ruling continues. “Those juveniles are, in effect, branded as irredeemable — at a point when their lives have barely begun and before their personalities are fully formed. They must carry this stigma even if they can prove that they pose no societal threat. But that irrebuttable lifetime
presumption is not supported by scientific and sociological studies or our jurisprudence and is not needed given the fifteen-year look back required by subsection (f).”
The state attorney general’s office declined to comment on the ruling.