BY MARGARET McHUGH
NEW JERSEY NEWSROOM
When Newton repealed a law barring all but the least dangerous sex offenders from living within its three square miles last fall, it wasn't because local officials' stance had softened.
An appellate court in July struck down sex offender residency restriction laws in Cherry Hill and Galloway Township, which effectively pulled the plug on similar measures taken by more than 100 municipalities. Newton opted to rescind its law; towns that kept theirs on the books can't enforce them.
Believing they have a right to prohibit sex offenders from living near places where children congregate, municipalities are now waiting for the state Supreme Court to rule on whether those laws undermine Megan's Law, the statewide authority on the handling of sex offenders."There's a cautious optimism that the Supreme Court would do the right thing,'' said Thomas Russo Jr., Newton's town manager. "Hopefully they will give us back the flexibility we should have.''
Those opposed to residency restrictions say they could backfire, destabilizing sex offenders and increasing the likelihood they will commit another crime. They cite research showing sex offenders who struck a second time were no more likely to live near children than those who didn't reoffend. They also note that most sex crimes against children are committed by people they know, and buffer zones would have no effect in those cases.
"From a policy point of view, this is a poor decision. Residency restrictions don't further the public safety,'' said Michael Z. Buncher, deputy public defender of the state Office of Public Defender. "If they have no place to live, they become very unstable. That kind of stress can lead people to reoffend,'' Buncher said. He argued against such zones in a letter to the state Assembly Judiciary Committee.
An analysis showed that almost every sex offender in Newark would have to move if a 2,500-foot buffer were imposed around schools. That study, by researchers at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City, did not consider the effect of additional buffers around parks and child-care centers, Buncher noted.
But in a state where home rule is gospel, New Jersey towns contend they have the right and responsibility to do what they deem best to protect their residents.
"All we're asking is to have some say in residency,'' attorney William Cook argued before the state's high court last month on behalf of Cherry Hill.
Cherry Hill's law, barring sex offenders from living within 2,500 feet of schools, parks and daycare centers, was challenged by two convicts who were found guilty in municipal court for living in a hotel near a school, a location approved by their parole officers. Under Megan's Law, a sex offender can't live someplace without the approval of his or her parole officer.
Hill conceded that Cherry Hill's law amounted to a town-wide ban on sex offenders, because it left no place for sex offenders to reside. Megan's Law forbids anyone from using a sex offenders' criminal record to deny housing.
The appellate decision also invalidated a residency law in Atlantic County's Galloway Township. Galloway tried to evict a freshman at Richard Stockton College of New Jersey in 2006 because five years earlier, as a 15-year-old, he committed a sexual contact offense against a 13-year-old girl.
The issue before the state's high court is whether the local ordinances are invalid because Megan's Law, passed in 1994, gives the state Parole Board responsibility of deciding where sex offenders can live. The state Parole Board currently supervises more than 5,000 sex offenders and monitors the most dangerous of them around the clock using a Global Positioning System.
While Hill acknowledged Cherry Hill's law might not pass legal muster, he asked the justices to word their decision in a way that would give municipalities a say in sex offender placement.
"Sounds like you're asking us to strike down the statute very narrowly,'' Justice Barry Albin said. "We're not a social laboratory. We're a court adjudicating the legality of the ordinance before us."
Demetrius Stratis, Galloway's attorney, argued all sex offenders – even those deemed to be low risks, like the college student – are likely to reoffend. The town's residency restriction was designed to "remove the temptation'' by keeping sex offenders away from children, Stratis said.
Studies, however, show recidivism rates for sex offenders are low. In February, the state Department of Corrections and Rutgers University released results of a federally funded study that found 7.6 percent of sex offenders convicted under Megan's Law were arrested for a subsequent sex crime.
The issue is not over, even if the Supreme Court were to deem towns' laws invalid. Several bills are pending in the Legislature, some that would give municipalities the right to establish buffer zones around places children congregate and others that would create a standard zone statewide. At least 21 states have such laws, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.