The state’s Public Defender’s office is hoping to join a federal lawsuit that is seeking to eliminate Megan’s Law registration for all juvenile sex offenders in New Jersey, a move the attorneys hope will strengthen their case to end the requirement.
Last week, the office filed an additional complaint against Attorney General Gurbir Grewal and a motion to intervene in the case of a 23-year-old who filed a lawsuit earlier this year alleging the Constitutional rights of juvenile sex offenders are being violated in New Jersey.
Both lawsuits argue that there was a rush to judgment when laws were passed creating sex offender registries that included juvenile sex offenders. Extensive research has shown that recidivism rates for juvenile sexual offenders are extremely low and putting them on a registry may actually have little effect on public safety while causing severe psychological harm to the juveniles themselves, according to the lawsuits.
“Adding another plaintiff to this litigation just shows it is a wide reaching problem,” said Jesse DeBrosse, an attorney in the Public Defender’s special hearings unit.
DeBrosse said it is also important that the state’s Public Defender’s office has a “seat at the table” for the issue, as they represent more juveniles than anyone else in New Jersey.
James Maynard, the attorney representing the 23-year-old who filed a lawsuit earlier this year, said he has been in communication with the Public Defender’s office and supports them intervening in the case.
“Our interests and objectives are aligned," said Maynard, whose Morristown firm specializes in representing those convicted or accused of sex offenses. “We are hoping that we can work together to achieve something that benefits juveniles throughout the state of New Jersey.”
An Attorney General spokesman declined to comment on the Public Defender’s office involvement in the case.
The Public Defender’s office case is also bringing a new challenge to juvenile sex offenders registration under Megan’s Law. Currently, a New Jersey juvenile over the age of 14 must register under Megan’s Law for at least 15 years after being adjudicated as delinquent. (A juvenile under 14 must also register but can petition to be removed when they turn 18.)
But the Public Defender’s office is arguing that based on how the law is written, adjudicated delinquents should not be subject to the 15-year time bar.
“Under our reading of the law, a person who is adjudicated as delinquent could apply to be released from Megan’s Law anytime they can prove they are not a threat to public safety,” DeBrosse said.
While the lawsuits share similar themes in challenging the Megan’s Law requirements, the subjects have had different experiences.
In the case from earlier this year, the 23-year-old Union County resident is described as a magna cum laude graduate from Binghamton University, who volunteers at various organizations and has a job at an international company. He was adjudicated as delinquent on three counts of endangering the welfare of a child when he was 16 and will be registered as a sex offender until at least 2027.
In the lawsuit filed last week by the state’s Public Defender’s office, the unidentified 20-year-old woman was the victim of sexual, emotional and physical abuse throughout her childhood. According to the lawsuit, she was first sexually abused when she was three. She was raped the next year. She was continually abused into her teenage years.
When she was 14, she committed the act of sexual abuse against a boy that placed her on the Megan’s Law registry. She was evaluated and diagnosed with a depressive disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder stemming from her childhood, according to the lawsuit. The woman was sentenced to probation and was placed in a group home where she successfully completed treatment.
The lawsuit says she “worked diligently to overcome the abuse she suffered as a child and her own history as a perpetrator.”
“(She) now presents a negligible risk of sex offense recidivism,” the lawsuit says.
DeBrosse, of the public defender’s office, said the woman’s situation shows there is “a large spectrum of kids that this can affect.”
“(The woman), on the other hand, had a very difficult childhood,” he said. “I think when you begin to understand her behavior in the context of all that she went through, there is a lot of empathy that can come from that.”
“It is very difficult for them to feel like they can’t get pass a thing that happened when they were a kid,” DeBrosse added about the thousands of juveniles on the registry in New Jersey. “By and large, they went through treatment, had great progress and come out the other side reformed and mature people.”
A number of states, including New Jersey, have recently addressed the issue. Last year, the New Jersey Supreme Court found that having juveniles register as sex offenders for life was unconstitutional. Since 2014, juvenile sex offenders, except for those classified as a “Sexually Violent Delinquent Child,” do not have to register in Pennsylvania. Currently, 12 states and the District of Columbia do not require juvenile sex offenders to register, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
When the Ohio state Supreme Court struck down a lifetime requirement for certain juvenile sex offenders, the court wrote: “The stigma of the label of sex offender attaches at the start of his adult life and cannot be shaken.”
A hearing is scheduled for Dec. 2 before U.S. Magistrate Judge Zahid N. Quraishi to determine whether whether the Public Defender’s office can intervene in the lawsuit.
According to court documents, the Attorney General’s office and Maynard, the attorney of the original case, have conducted settlement negotiations in recent months.