“The easiest way to never get on this list is to be a good person and not do a bias incident,” said one of the bill’s sponsors, Sen. Troy Singleton.
Civil rights advocates are voicing opposition to a proposal to create a registry for New Jersey residents convicted of hate crimes.
The plan, announced last week by a trio of lawmakers in the seventh legislative district, would create a public online registry containing the names, addresses, license plate numbers, and various other descriptors for New Jersey residents convicted of at least two bias intimidation offenses.
The advocates say the proposed database follows in the steps of sex offender registries that civil rights groups have opposed for decades, saying they do little to improve public safety or rehabilitate offenders.
“Other than idle curiosity or improperly enabling some type of harassment of those people, what would people do with the information?” said Ronald Chen, a distinguished Rutgers University law professor who litigates civil rights cases with the school’s Constitutional Rights Clinic. “It just doesn’t strike me as particularly useful.”
While New Jersey’s hate crime registry would be the first of its kind, sex offender registries exist in every state and at the federal level. Many of them are modeled on Megan’s Law, the 1994 New Jersey law passed following the rape and murder of 7-year-old Megan Kanka by a man with two previous convictions for sex crimes involving children.
Elements of that law were struck down the following year after a federal court found a requirement that police proactively disseminate sex offenders’ information was unconstitutionally punitive, but public registries have largely been upheld by courts.
Civil rights experts say they encourage repeat offenses.
“By placing restrictions on where someone on the registry can live or work, you end up further marginalizing them and exacerbating problems in their lives like poverty, substance use disorder, mental illness, that actually make offending more likely,” said Jenny-Brooke Condon, director of Seton Hall Law School’s Equal Justice Clinic.
Inspired by Mount Laurel incident
The proposal by state Sen. Troy Singleton and his district mates, Assemblywoman Carol Murphy and Assemblyman Herb Conaway, all Burlington County Democrats, would not impose restrictions on where individuals with bias intimidation convictions can live, but it might not have to.
Individuals who find themselves on a public registry would potentially face scrutiny from their neighbors of the like drawn by Edward Cagney Mathews, the Mount Laurel man who launched a tirade laced with racial slurs against a neighbor and whose case prompted the lawmakers’ hate crimes registry idea.
When video of Matthews’ tirade went viral, hundreds gathered outside his home to protest. He was subsequently arrested and now faces 14 criminal charges, including three for bias intimidation.
“This happened with Megan’s Law,” Chen said. “You’re harassed, you can’t find a place to live, so you decide to go underground and become even more of a danger because law enforcement can’t keep tabs on you.”
Alienation driven by registries can also reinforce bias among offenders.
“While bias and hate need to be condemned and punished when it threatens people’s safety, I think we make more room for people to act on their hate when they are further marginalized because of potential job loss and social isolation,” Condon said.
‘No one has to get on this list’
The bill’s sponsors are aware of the concerns and expected some questions posed by advocates would be addressed during the legislative process. Singleton noted only offenders with more than one bias intimidation conviction would end up on the list.
“We may disagree in this regard, but ultimately, I’m sure when this bill has its opportunity to be vetted through my colleagues, questions like that will be asked and answered,” he said. “And it’s my hope that we recognize that no one has to get on this list if they’re not running afoul repeatedly.”
Singleton did not have an estimate of how many people might end up in the hate crime registry if the proposal is approved by both chambers of the Legislature and earns Gov. Phil Murphy’s signature.
New Jersey has seen a staggering rise of hate crimes over recent years: there were 1,441 bias incidents reported last year, according to data maintained by the New Jersey State Police, and the 817 incidents reported in the first six months of 2021 mean the final total for this year will be higher. But bias intimidation convictions are still exceedingly rare.
There have been only 18 such convictions since the start of 2020, according to data provided by the Administrative Office of the Courts. It’s possible court delays caused by the pandemic may have depressed that figure, and it’s not clear whether a single individual was convicted of more than one bias offense.
New Jersey’s hate crimes statute requires an underlying offense whose victim was chosen on the basis of their protected class, be it race, religion, gender, or sexual orientation. The punishment for these crimes is tied to the underlying offense and can be severe, carrying penalties of up to 30 years imprisonment if the independent offense was a second-degree crime like aggravated assault.
The hefty punishments may not serve as an effective deterrent. Because the offenses deal with motive, they can be difficult to prove and rarely prosecuted, Chen said.
The sponsors see the registry and the public shaming it entails as another method of discouraging would-be offenders.
“The one piece that I would add to anyone who feels this is overstepping or encroachment or worry about that — the easiest way to never get on this list is to be a good person and not do a bias incident,” Singleton said.
There’s no telling how long individuals added to the hate crime registry would remain there, though Singleton said he’d support adding a process to remove the names of any who moved toward rehabilitation.
Sex offenders on New Jersey’s Megan Law registry can petition to be removed after 15 years if they committed only a single offense.
The bill won’t see movement for months, as neither chamber of the Legislature is expected to come into session until after November’s election, and its sponsors have yet to discuss the proposal with legislative leaders, whose sign off is needed for the bill to advance.
Even the sponsors would prefer the registry remain empty should it pass.
“It’s my hope that folks won’t find a need to have their name on this registry at all because we will treat our fellow New Jerseyans with respect,” Singleton said.
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