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Saturday, July 13, 2024

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Megan’s Law: Is It Enough Protection?

By Christine Cote

COURT HOUSE – The current trend to pass laws to restrict where convicted sex offend-ers can live will do little to protect the public and may be counter-productive.
That is what George W. Ackley, who holds a PhD. in clinical psychology, a state license in that discipline and has been involved with counseling sex offenders since 1978, told the Herald last week.
Today, the City of Wildwood may join those communities that have already barred con-victed sex offenders from residing in certain areas, with Ordinance No. 657-05 on for final passage at this afternoon’s commission meeting.
Working first in California, Ackley came to New Jersey in 1989.
He has seen, first hand, the impact since the November 1994 passage of Megan’s Law, a culmination of legislation pending for a year and then fueled by the murder of 7-year-old Megan Kanka in Mercer County in July 1994 by a twice convicted sex offender.
All states have some variation of that law, said Ackley, but “New Jersey has the most effi-cient, the best plan.”
It has made the community safer, said Ackley, “because of the supervision and treatment required. By and large, all offenders must be in some sort of offender specific treatment.”
It is not the high-risk offenders that people usually think of and that has prompted those ordinances, that present the community with the greatest concern, since many of those re-main incarcerated, said Ackley.
“It’s those who haven’t been caught, that’s the ones I’d worry about,” he said.
Ackley provides counseling through group and individual therapy sessions, and works in cooperation with a number of county probation departments and through the parole office in Vineland.
Under Megan’s Law, convicted offenders are designated Tier I, Tier II, or Tier III.
Those distinctions between types of offenders and the risks they present to the commu-nity were added to the legislation by then Gov. Christine Whitman.
But the ordinances passed by numerous local municipalities, such as Cape May, Dennis Township, Sea Isle City, Lower Township, and Wildwood Crest do not make any distinc-tions between the nature of a conviction or an assessment of risk.
Offenders who have been designated Tier I, the lowest risk, must register with local po-lice but their names are not placed on the State Police’s sex offenders Internet registry, ac-cording to the law.
However, it would seem that they would be subject to the terms of the residential restric-tive ordinances, along with those in Tiers II and III.
Those in Tier I, said Ackley have generally been convicted of child endangerment and are considered low risk for committing a repeat offense.
Characteristically they are non-violent, with a lack of a substantial criminal history and have ties to the community.
Most are on probation and include those involved in incestuous relationships, fondling, or non-contact offenses, such as exposing themselves or sharing pornographic pictures.
They were not necessarily required to enroll in treatment under the law, but Ackley said that the state has been “tightening up” supervision and treatment requirements of Megan’s Law over the past 18 months. Now treatment is required for all those covered by the law.
In addition, while those who violated conditions of their parole were formally entitled to judicial review before being incarcerated, that has become stricter, and a violator may be incarcerated immediately.
Those who fail to register as required can be charged with a separate offense.
While those on Tier I are subject to 15 years of supervision, those in higher tiers are un-der supervision for life.
Although they can apply to a court for release from supervision after 15 years, Ackley said that portion of law has not yet been invoked or tested but may be soon.
He emphasized the there is “no one single pattern of sex offense.” And that is the prob-lem with these new ordinances since “it is wrong to lump pedophiles and statutory rape” together, he said.
The latter offender, said Ackley, will generally outgrow the behavior and is very low risk. He gave as an example an older teenage boy who has been invited to live in the home of his 14-year-old girl friend and then is charged with statutory rape once the relationship fails.
That young man, if convicted, is required to register and may be subject to the 15 years of state supervision, which is expensive.
“It’s a waste of money in my mind,” said Ackley, who “would rather have more money for (treating) pedophiles and antisocial personality offenders.”
The caseloads are huge for lower tier cases, said Ackley.
A restriction on where they can live will only drive those offenders away from the support of family and treatment and perhaps jobs.
“A lot of these offenders work best and live best in a family situation,” said Ackley, “with a wife, a parent or kids.”
He once offered to speak at a local school to seventh and eight graders to explain that there are “some powerful consequences to relationships,” between girls who are under 16 and boys who are older. But the school declined.
In contrast, pedophiles are those who engage in “repetitive and compulsive behavior,” said Ackley.
Most of those offenders are sentenced to the Adult Diagnostic Treatment Center in Avenal following conviction.
There are currently around 600 in that facility and they are the high-risk offenders who receive treatment during their two-and-a half to 12-year sentences there.
If released, in addition to registering, they must verify their address every 90 days with law enforcement officials, while those who are not deemed repetitive and compulsive need only verify their address annually.
Upon release from Avenel, they will generally be considered Tier III but Ackley said an individual could move from Tier III to Tier II, if treatment results in a lower risk assess-ment. He has never seen an offender move from Tier III to Tier I.
Four criteria are considered in judging risk, according to Ackley:
o Parole or probation compliance.
o Stable and gainful employment.
o Treatment compliance.
o Proper residential setting, as with family or people who know the individual to provide support as well as monitoring.
There is “pretty tight oversight,” under existing law, said Ackley.
He would like to see a federal registration requirement, which would catch those who cross state lines and attempt to avoid registration in a new jurisdiction.
County Prosecutor Robert Taylor would like to see more detectives available to investigate factual circumstances which are weighed in judging risk.
He said often there might be prior conduct that was insufficient to support a criminal charge but, if known, would move an individual from one tier to another.
Or the “conviction record may not give enough information,” he said.
It is also important to monitor that they “are living where they say they’re living,” Taylor said, and even under the new ordinances, “you’re still going to have to monitor.” There’s a “lot of follow-up in Tier II and Tier III cases,” he added.
As of August, Taylor said the county had 166 individuals subject to Megan’s Law in all tiers.
Since his involvement with those cases, Ackley does not believe that there has been an increase in these types of crimes. “If anything, it’s a slight decrease,” he said.
As to recidivism or those who are repeat offenders, generally, Ackley said, last year he be-lieves the number was “overall 13 to 14 percent for all offenses” nationally.
Contact Cote at: ccote@cmcherald.com

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