Most of the people listed on New Jersey’s sex offender registry are there for crimes too terrible to imagine.
They’ve molested preschoolers or even babies, made and traded child pornography, raped victims at knifepoint. Many are considered repetitive, compulsive offenders, so likely to reoffend that the state warns the public about them.
Then there’s J.
The North Jersey man, who asked that his name be withheld because of the stigma sex offenders endure, was 14 when he says a hangout with a younger friend in a treehouse turned sexual. The other boy’s parents found out and reported him to police.
“I denied it because I was embarrassed by it,” J said. “And then, you know, it just kind of snowballed from there.”
Wanting to put it behind him, J pleaded guilty and was sentenced to counseling and six months of probation.
That’s where it should have ended.
But because of a shoplifting incident months later, a judge ordered J to lifelong registration as a sex offender.
Cases like J’s have prompted calls for reform from juvenile justice advocates who say children don’t deserve that label for life — or even at all.
New Jersey is one of 42 states that allow juveniles to be placed on sex offender registries, according to the Juvenile Law Center, even though research shows only 5% of juvenile sex offenders commit new sex crimes.
State laws on sex offender registries vary widely in everything from what offenses require registration, how old someone must be to land on the list, and how long they must remain on it.
But in New Jersey, children 14 or older who get adjudicated in Family Court for a sex-related offense fall under the same mandatory registration requirements adults do — and judges have no power to keep them off the list.
“In deciding to take that approach, New Jersey is among the most restrictive, draconian states in the nation,” said Laura Cohen, director of the Criminal and Youth Justice Clinic at Rutgers University.
Juvenile justice has trended toward leniency in recent years, with research into adolescent brain development spurring the U.S. Supreme Court to exempt juveniles from the death penalty and lifetime imprisonment without the possibility of parole.
“In the Megan’s Law context, we haven’t caught up to that recognition that juveniles are less mature than adults and are more likely to rehabilitate as they as they grow and mature,” said Michael Noveck, assistant deputy public defender in the New Jersey Office of the Public Defender. “We should treat people whose conduct occurs when they’re juveniles a lot differently than adults.”
Living in fear
Sex offenders in New Jersey get “tiered” based on how much risk they represent to the public. Even the lowest tiered offenders, like J, are required to check in with local police at least once a year and report address changes — or risk incarceration.
Information about the lowest-tiered offenders is shared with law enforcement statewide, but it’s not posted on an online registry where the state alerts the public of moderate- and high-risk offenders.
In J’s case, people still found out.
When he was 17, a cop who attended his church learned of his sex offender status and threatened to reveal it to the congregation if the pastor didn’t remove him from Sunday school.
Later, he lost a new job when his status came up on a background check. And a few girlfriends ended their relationship with him when he shared his history with them.
“It’s a scary situation to realize that, at any moment, the wrong person could find out and just out you to everyone that you know, and that will change how everyone views you,” he said.
But worse was the constant fear he felt as a registered sex offender.
“I got a citation because I didn’t mow my lawn. But I couldn’t pay it, so a police officer came knocking on my door,” he remembered. “I hid in my house. I didn’t answer the door. I just peeked out the window, because I was like, ‘Oh my God, what if something happened in the neighborhood, and they think I did it because I’m on the registry?’”
In 2017, J decided he’d had enough. He petitioned to get off the list.
Under New Jersey law, registration as a sex offender is lifelong. Sex offenders can petition for removal from the registry if their sex crime wasn’t an aggravated offense and if they don’t reoffend within 15 years of their conviction — and even something as asexual and minor as shoplifting counts against them.
New Jersey has no minimum age for the registry, but juveniles under 14 who get on the list can get off it at 18, if they prove in a hearing they pose no threat to others.
Officially, J didn’t qualify for removal. His sex offense conviction was for aggravated sexual assault because of the age gap between him and the other boy — who was 10 — and he committed a new crime at 15, when he was convicted of shoplifting Legos from a store and a judge extended his initial six-month probation indefinitely.
But the Office of the Public Defender took the case anyway, and in April, a judge approved J’s petition and removed him from the registry. He won on the narrow ground that both his offenses predated Megan’s Law, the 1994 measure meant to increase public safety by requiring convicted sex offenders to register for life with law enforcement, so the ruling doesn’t have broad impact.
Now, the Office of the Public Defender is battling a case in Essex County they hope will be precedential. A woman who was a teenager when she was adjudicated delinquent for a sex offense and later got charged for shoplifting as an adult is fighting for removal from the registry too.
Noveck hopes that case will spur a change in how New Jersey handles all juvenile sex offenders.
“We’re trying to align Megan’s Law to fit the other areas of law where jurisprudence has recognized that children are different,” Noveck said.
The harms of registration
For Riya Saha Shah, there are all sorts of reasons why children shouldn’t be on sex offender registries at all.
Shah is managing director at the Juvenile Law Center, a Philadelphia-based nonprofit whose 2014 challenge of Pennsylvania’s registry requirements led the state’s Supreme Court to declare lifetime registration for juveniles unconstitutional.
The center estimates that 200,000 people on are sex offender registries nationally for crimes they committed as children. About 1,010 of the 16,839 people on New Jersey’s registry as of August 2021 were juveniles, according to the Administrative Office of the Courts. It’s unclear how many adults on the registry are there for offenses they committed as juveniles.
In the Megan's Law context, we haven't caught up to that recognition that juveniles are less mature than adults and are more likely to rehabilitate as they as they grow and mature. We should treat people whose conduct occurs when they're juveniles a lot differently than adults. – Michael Noveck, assistant deputy public defender
In the Megan's Law context, we haven't caught up to that recognition that juveniles are less mature than adults and are more likely to rehabilitate as they as they grow and mature. We should treat people whose conduct occurs when they're juveniles a lot differently than adults.
– Michael Noveck, assistant deputy public defender
When it comes to putting children on the registry, “they don’t do the thing they purport to do, which is to make communities safer,” Shah said. “Instead, they do so much harm to children and the families of children on the registry.”
Children on the registry are more likely to be homeless, attempt suicide, and be approached for sex by an adult, Shah said. Black, brown, and LGBTQ children also are disproportionately represented on sex offender registries, she added.
“There are very tangible, very harmful effects of putting children on sex offender registries,” Shah said.
Mandatory registration also ignores the fact that some inappropriate sexual behavior by children is rooted in abuse, said Camille Gibson, executive director of the Texas Juvenile Crime Prevention Center at Prairie View A & M University.
“Oftentimes when young people are engaged in sexual behavior, it’s because they have been victimized, so we want to be careful about not rushing to treat victims like offenders,” Gibson said.
Treatment, then, is key, and in other states, judges can keep juveniles off the registry if they successfully complete therapy, Gibson said. But in New Jersey, state law gives judges no such discretion.
After 27 years on the registry, J still fails to see what purpose it served. He never committed any other crimes and feels like his time on the registry had no impact on public safety.
He’s now happily married to a woman who knows his background. He’s working and just completed a college program that he hopes will help him pivot to his dream career.
But he still guards his identity closely. He feels like he spent almost three decades “hiding this deep, dark secret” that only became a deep, dark secret because of his bad timing with an unyielding law and the stigma sex offenders endure.
“I was treated like I was a prowler, like a serial rapist, like the worst of the worst,” J said. “It’s hard to forget that.”
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