Megan’s Law created a complex regulatory system of registration and community notification of released sex offenders that is complicated and touches on many issues, according to Morristown defense attorney James H. Maynard. He proposed that the Criminal Law Section of the New Jersey State Bar Association form a Megan’s Law Sub-Committee, and now serves as its chair. Last month, he invited interested legal professionals to become members.
Maynard, 56, took up law as a second career after studying international economics in Japan and working on trade policy in Washington, D.C. “I decided to do something where I felt I could have a direct personal impact, one-on-one,” he says. After graduating from Rutgers School of Law-Camden he handled business and corporate law matters, but switched to criminal defense and opened his own firm. In recent years he has concentrated on post-conviction sex offender representation, which he calls “an interesting and emerging area of the law, with lots of gray areas and lots of room for examining the constitutionality of the law.”
Q. What would you like to come out of this committee?
A. Right now the Megan’s Law community – prosecutors, defense attorneys, judges, treatment providers, people in probation and parole, the detectives tasked with registration and verification – is kind of fragmented and in some ways, somewhat adversarial. I thought if we brought together these different segments of the community in a collegial and mutually respectful environment to talk about the issues, there are many things we could do to help refine the way the law is implemented, as well as be fairer to the people who are registrants.
Q. Can you give me an example of a provision in the law that’s not fair?
A. Under Megan’s law, people are not only required to register and re-register if they move, but they’re also required to verify once a year (or every 90 days, if they were found ‘compulsive and repetitive’) that nothing has changed, that they’re still at that address. Once they’re on that schedule, there’s no way they can change it, no matter what progress they’ve made in their life or therapy. I have a client who’s done stellar things with his life, but remains on that 90-day schedule. It burdens the police, and it’s not really fair to the person.
Q. How can the committee change things?
A. Sometimes there are solutions to be found, where procedures are under control of the authorities and they agree to voluntarily change procedures. People can also bring possible solutions to the Legislature. The committee can help by being a body that the Legislature can turn to for advice and counsel.
Q. Is Megan’s Law here to stay?
A. It’s here to stay, but a number of refinements are needed. The principal one is to make it a risk-based evaluation process, versus an offense-based eligibility process. Under Megan’s Law the vast majority of people have to wait for 15 years before they can apply for termination of the designation. Because you have lots of people who cannot get off Megan’s Law, that population continues to build every year. State resources are limited. We’re diluting the state’s ability to monitor sex offenders.
Q. Do you consider Megan’s Law destructive?
A. I agree 100 percent with the intent of Megan’s Law, which is to protect the public from sex offenders. But I would say it is destructive when it is run using an offense-based approach. It can be constructive and protective of society if it uses a risk-based approach.
Q. But can we accurately predict who will commit another sex offense?
A. That’s one of the bright spots in this whole picture. We have had a huge evolution and development of the science and the psychology of sex offense recidivism. There can be a margin of error, but in a judicial system where you’re assessing people for termination, you can make that margin of error in favor of the public.
Q. The people who pushed for Megan’s Law might say, ‘Better safe than sorry.’ How is over-supervision harmful?
A. Recent studies show, where you have a person who is at low risk of recidivism, and they’re put on Megan’s Law, which stops them from having a normal life, they can become despondent and vulnerable and vulnerable to criminality – not necessarily sex offenses, but anti-social things. If that person had been permitted to go on with their life, it would very likely have been normal.