TRENTON, N.J. (CN) — A lawyer for New Jersey urged the state Supreme Court on Monday for a strict reading of a law that lets registered sex offenders off the registry so long as they keep a clean record for 15 years.
“Conviction means what we say it does, and that’s the conviction that triggers Megan’s Law,” said Special Deputy Attorney General Frank DuCoat, referencing the 1994 law enacted after 7-year-old Megan Kanka was raped and murdered by a neighbor who had already been convicted twice for sexual assault.
The law allows information to be provided to law enforcement and the public about the whereabouts of sex offenders, but lawmakers added a provision in 2002 that gives offenders a chance to be removed from the list if they do not commit any other offenses within 15 years of conviction.
Arguments before the state high court on Monday focused on two sex offenders, referred to only as H.D. and J.M., who were convicted on sexual assault charges in 1994 and 1998. Both remained offense free until 2001 when J.M. was convicted of computer-related theft, and H.D. convicted for failing to register as a sex offender.
Though the state says the second convictions forfeited their chance to get off the list forever, the offenders say the 15-year window should reset with every new conviction, meaning they should have gotten another chance at removal from the list in 2016, 15 years after their second convictions.
A court ruled in their favor last December, but Assistant Prosecutor David Galemba pushed Monday for a reversal.
“Common sense did not get checked at the door when deciding what the Legislature meant with their word choice,” said Galemba.
Justice Barry Albin questioned if the seriousness of the second conviction played a role in deciding if a sex offender could be taken off the otherwise life-long list.
“I’ve given a hypothetical of a candy bar being stolen within the first year, I take it you wouldn’t argue that if that offense occurred, that person should be registered as a sexual offender for the rest of his life,” Albin said.
“We should expect anybody to follow basic rules of society,” said Galemba. “They’re not on Megan’s Law for stealing a candy bar, they’ve already violated the law in a very serious way.”
Galemba further stressed his point, noting that repeat offenders pose more of a risk to society, no matter how minor the crime.
“Knowing that they can go to those 15 years and apply to get relief, and they still can’t refrain from committing an antisocial act, they are more of a risk than somebody who can go those 15 years,” said Galemba.
When Justice Anne Patterson pointed underscored the safety-minded goals of the list, public defender Fletcher Duddy emphasized that the state has already deemed his clients to no longer be a danger to the public.
“Keeping them bound to Megan’s Law serves no remedial purpose,” said Duddy.
Chief Justice Stuart Rabner questioned Assistant Deputy Public Defender Jesse DeBrosse, also representing the offenders, to clarify what he thinks the word “conviction” in the statute means.
DeBrosse says that conviction can mean either the first sex conviction or an unrelated second conviction.
“I think ‘conviction’ can refer to the second conviction because the question is, has a person been offense-free within 15 years following ‘conviction or release,’” said Debrosse.
In an interview about the proceedings, psychology professor Elizabeth Jeglic noted that the benefits of keeping offenders on a registry is highly speculative.
“There is little to no evidence that being on the registry decreases reoffending, and it is likely that it may actually increase risk as it is harder to reintegrate into the community, find work, support systems etc.,” said Jeglic in an email.
Deputy Attorney General Emily Anderson, who argued a similar case before the court last month, also argued Monday for the state.
American Civil Liberties Union attorney Alexander Shalom appeared at arguments as a friend of the court.
Attorneys for both parties did not immediately respond to emails seeking comment.
The panel was rounded out by Justices Jaynee LaVecchia, Faustino Fernandez-Vina, Lee Solomon and Walter Timpone.