June 25, 2013

New Jersey Senate committee takes steps to update Megan's Law

6-25-2013 New Jersey:

State lawmakers today advanced a bill that would require sex offenders to pay part of their monitoring costs under Megan’s Law and toughen penalties for those who violate its provisions.

The Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee voted 12-0 to approve the measure (S2636), which would charge newly convicted sex offenders a $30 per month fee that would go into a state "Sex Offender Supervision Fund."

The money would also help authorities monitor what offenders do online.

"The original intent back in 1994 was to make parents aware of where the danger lies around the neighborhood," said Richard Kanka, whose daughter was the namesake of the law. "But with electronic stuff … we thought that it also had to be updated to include some of that, too."

Kanka and his wife, Maureen, pushed for the updates to the law and lobbied Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D-Gloucester), who is one of its sponsors.

The bill, which was also approved by the Law and Public Safety Committee earlier this month and now heads for a vote in the full Senate at a yet-to-be determined date, would also:

• Upgrade penalties for sexual assault if the victim is physically or mentally incapacitated. The crime would be second degree, as opposed to the current third degree, carrying a sentence of 5 to 10 years in prison and a fine of up to $150,000.

• Increase the penalty for failure to register a new address with authorities from a fourth-degree to a third-degree crime.

• Clarify that a young person caught "sexting" with a cell phone – sending racy pictures to other young people – would not have to register as a sex offender.

• Low-level offenders whose conduct has been deemed "repetitive" and "compulsive" would show up in publicly accessible online databases. Currently, mid-level offenders and up can be seen publicly.

• The supervision fund would also provide money to upgrade computer equipment so authorities can monitor sex offenders’ online activity.

• Parole officers would not be allowed to handle more than 40 sex offender cases.

The Office of Legislative Services estimates the bill would cost the state Parole Board $6.5 million in its first year and $7.6 million each subsequent year. The bill would also increase costs for the Judiciary, but the office had no estimate for how much. If every new convict paid the $30 per month fee, it would generate $350,000 in the first year and just over $1 million by the third year, but the office said that "many parolees have difficulty paying their current fees and restitution amounts and the additional fee may not be collected."

State Sen. Linda Greenstein (D-Middlesex), a sponsor of the bill, said that while the legislation’s language may be unclear, the bill is only intended to apply to those convicted of sex offenses in the future.

"The main thing that it does is just makes sure that we have enough parole officers, that everybody is well-trained, that we take into account all of the electronic means in which people are carrying out these heinous crimes – and that they are funded," Greenstein said.

The fee is tiered so that low-income sex offenders pay only half to three-quarters, depending on how much they earn.

State Sen. Jennifer Beck (R-Monmouth) said she didn’t understand why low-income offenders should have to pay less.

"If you do something wrong, whether you’re rich or poor, we generally punish you the same way," Beck said. ..Source.. by Matt Friedman/The Star-Ledger

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