An Assembly committee approved a bill yesterday that would allow towns to prohibit released sex offenders from living near schools, child care centers and playgrounds.
The measure, which cleared the Assembly Judiciary Committee, was in response to a recent state Supreme Court ruling that struck down more than 100 local ordinances limiting where sex offenders can live.
"The Supreme Court created a legal void that the Legislature now must attempt to fill," said Assemblyman Wayne DeAngelo (D-Mercer), one of the sponsors. "State law needs to be clear that towns can be empowered to enact ordinances that fit a standard model, make sense for their communities and will ultimately protect kids and give families peace of mind."
The court ruled the local laws were not needed because under Megan's Law, parole officers already limit where released sex offenders can live. The court also said lawmakers, not justices, are the ones who have the power to change the "stark language of Megan's Law" that bans towns from making their own rules.
The bill (A641) would authorize towns to prohibit sex offenders over 21 years old from living up to 500 feet from schools, child care centers or playgrounds. But opponents said it would prompt sex offenders to go underground.
"If you don't have a place to live in anymore, you're not going to register, that seems to be what happens," Public Defender Michael Buncher said. The measure, he said, would leave fewer places for sex offenders to reside and may prompt more sex offenders to live together.
Buncher said other states are starting to move away from such laws. He noted that Iowa recently amended a similar law because state prosecutors found fewer sex offenders were telling police where they lived, after being released from prison.
"They lost track of them. They didn't know where they were," Buncher said.
The complaint that prompted the state's highest court to rule on the issue had to do with a Richard Stockton College of New Jersey student who lived on campus but was violating Galloway Township's local law. Assemblyman Reed Gusciora (D-Mercer) said the age restriction included in the bill would allow minors who had been convicted of sex offenses as teenagers to attend college like other students.
"Without that amendment, this college student would not be able to live in the dorm," Gusciora said.
The state League of Municipalities opposed the bill, saying it could lead to more lawsuits that would further delay setting these stricter limits.
William Dressel, executive director for the league, said the measure could be challenged again because it would leave the decision up to individual towns rather than setting a statewide standard for where sex offenders can live. He said the Supreme Court's decision was based solely on whether local laws could preempt state law.
"It did not consider other constitutional questions," Dressel said. "Those questions would be subject matter for future litigation that could delay and invalidate future local residency restriction ordinances."
The measure cleared the committee, 6-0, and now moves to the full Assembly. An identical Senate version of the bill has been introduced.
Tags: sex, sexual, offender, issues, sex offender, sexual offender, residency restrictions, new jersey,
Marked as: approved
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