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In New Jersey, sex offenders fight for chance to get off registry

In New Jersey as in most states, there is a sex offender registry that was created by a "Megan's Law." These laws were enacted after a 7-year-old girl, Megan Kanka, was raped and murdered by a man who had been convicted twice of sexual assault. The law requires all those convicted of qualifying sex crimes to register their whereabouts with the state and allows public disclosure of that information.

Sex offender registries may seem reasonable, but they suffer from a number of problems. For one, there is actually little evidence that being placed on a sex offender registry reduces a person's chances of reoffending. In fact, it might make reoffending more likely because it makes it harder for people to reintegrate into society. It also promotes vigilantism and collateral damage to the offender's family. 

Moreover, there is no evidence that most of the people chosen for the sex offender registry are actually more dangerous than others. This is partially because people can be placed on the registry for offenses like public urination or teenage sexting, or even consensual underage sex between teenagers, which don't necessarily predict future offenses.

The registries have also been criticized for giving the public a false sense of security, since more than 90% of offenders are not strangers (for whom the registries were originally created), but relatives or people closely involved in the victim's life.

It's also because people are kept on the registry even after they have gone long periods of time without reoffending. It can be virtually impossible to get removed from a sex offender registry even when the person is truly rehabilitated.

That's one reason why New Jersey changed the law in 2002 to allow people to be removed from the sex offender registry if they haven't committed any additional offense within 15 years of conviction.

15 years from the original offense or 15 years from the latest conviction?

Two men in New Jersey are petitioning to have their names taken off the sex offender registry after 15 years of clean records. The problem? Both committed crimes within 15 years of their sex crime conviction. But it has now been 15 years since their second offenses.

The men were convicted of sexual assault in separate cases in 1994 and 1998. In 2001, each man was convicted separately of a new, non-sex-related offense. They admit this precludes their being removed from the sex offender registry.

But now it has been more than 15 years since 2001. Are they not then 15 years from conviction? Or do they only get one chance to be removed from the registry -- 15 years from their sex offenses?

An appellate court will decide. A major question is, are these the kind of people who are so dangerous they must be registered? Or would the registry and the community be better served by excluding people who have gone long terms without committing another crime?

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