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The Senate Judiciary Committee on May 22 voted, 8-0, for a proposed constitutional amendment allowing New Jersey to post personal information about sex offenders on the Internet. If the Legislature goes along with the resolution, SCR-2, as is expected, and voters approve it this fall, New Jersey would become the 30th state with some type of Internet sex offender registry. New Jersey’s registry would include convicted sex offenders’ names, photos, home addresses, places of work and criminal histories. Senate President Donald DiFrancesco, the prime sponsor of SCR-2, told the committee that New Jersey, which led the country by enacting Megan’s Law, has fallen behind other states in ensuring that the information is readily available. “New Jersey’s initiative has spent the better part of its statutory life in the courts,” he told the committee. “Meanwhile, other states moved on to defend their laws and to even enhance their existing statutes by expanding the public’s ability to access Megan’s Law information.” New Jersey is barred from releasing sex offender information to the public while the 3rd Circuit weighs an appeal of Paul P. v. Farmer, 97-2919. In March, U.S. District Judge Joseph Irenas ruled that existing guidelines, which link the scope of release of information to the particular offender’s risk of committing another sex crime, do not adequately protect the offender’s privacy rights. DiFrancesco also faulted the state Supreme Court’s ruling in Doe v. Poritz, 142 N.J. 1 (1995), which set out due process requirements for different tiers of sex offenders. “In no other state has the Supreme Court enacted a decision as limiting to the state and to the public as the one rendered right here in New Jersey,” he said. Attorney General John Farmer Jr. told the committee that the constitutional amendment, which has the support of Gov. Christine Todd Whitman and Assembly leaders, is necessary to forestall any challenge to the Internet registry in the state courts. Farmer acknowledged, however, that there still would likely be a due process challenge in federal courts based on the Fourteenth Amendment. “The law is unsettled,” said Farmer, noting the 3rd Circuit’s stay on any community notification and a 6th Circuit ruling in Cutshall v. Sundquist, 193 F.3d 466 (1999), in which the Court upheld Tennessee’s decision to develop an Internet sex offender registry. “Amending the Constitution is not a step to be taken lightly,” Farmer said. “It must serve a compelling state interest. Neighborhood notification fails” to address the need for the public’s access to sex offender information. As a result, an amendment allowing the creation of an Internet database that is available to the public serves the state’s interests, he said. Sen. John Matheussen, R-Gloucester, a member of the Judiciary Committee, voted to recommend passage, but asked Farmer whether the amendment was necessary. “Don’t we already have the ability to do this?” he asked, noting that Camden County Prosecutor Lee Solomon has a Web site that provides details of convictions and sentencings. Farmer responded that there is more information in a Megan’s Law release than in a press release about a conviction, although he acknowledged that most information about a sex offender “would be discoverable to the diligent researcher.” The committee also heard from Ewing defense lawyer Jack Furlong, who had argued against the constitutionality of Megan’s Law in Doe v. Poritz. Furlong said that the Internet registry will run into the same trouble as Megan’s Law because it applies retroactively to sex offenders who have served their time and are living anonymously. “I argued this six years ago and now I say, ‘I told you so,’” said Furlong. “Please don’t make me come back here in another six years and make me say again, ‘I told you so.’” “These types of laws do not work,” Furlong added. “You’re being fed bad information in the name of political expediency.” Furlong said the state is operating under the mistaken belief that all sex offenders are likely to commit another sex crime. Most offenders, he said, are treatable and do not commit another offense. Deborah Jacobs, the executive director of the New Jersey chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, also testified against the proposed amendment. An Internet registry “gives the illusion of safety,” she said. The amendment as written could have unintended consequences, said Jacobs. If, for example, the site lists incest in an offender’s criminal history, it may prompt other incest victims not to report the incident for fear that they will identified, albeit indirectly, on a public Web site. She added that if the Web site is not constantly updated, vigilantes may harass an individual living in a sex offender’s former home, not knowing that the offender has moved. Nineteen other states have sex-offender-registry Web sites accessible to the public, while 10 other states have sites accessible only to law enforcement. Five states are developing such sites.

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