July 10, 2024
gavel on a desk

The Criminal and Youth Justice Clinic (CYJC) achieved a significant victory in the New Jersey Supreme Court on July 1, when the Court held that youth placed on the sex offender registry have the right to be removed at any time, as long as they can prove they are not likely to pose a threat to the safety of others. Under the previous interpretation of the law, children on the registry were required to wait 15 years before they could apply to be taken off. If they had any subsequent offense—even a petty crime like disorderly conduct—they were barred permanently from removal.

The clinic served as amicus curiae and represented the ACLU of New Jersey on this case (In the Matter of Registrant R.H.) as well as a companion case (In the Matter of Registrant J. A.), which raised a constitutional challenge to prohibiting the removal of youth with subsequent delinquency offenses from the registry.

Professor of Law and CYJC Director Laura Cohen has been concerned about the inclusion of children and adolescents on the state’s sex offender registry for the last decade.

Prof Laura Cohen
Professor of Law and CYJC Director Laura Cohen (file/credit: Queens District Attorney's Office)

“Registered youth are stigmatized in myriad ways and with devastating consequences,” she explains. They often cannot live with their families, are excluded from public housing, and become homeless at a young age. They can be pushed out of school, sports, and community organizations, and face difficulty obtaining and holding a job. And, they may suffer vigilante violence and are often social outcasts.”

“As a result of this ostracization, they have disproportionately high rates of sexual victimization, depression, and suicide,” Cohen points out. “Worse still, there is no legitimate public safety justification for inflicting these harms on young people.”

In fact, while the registry was created to protect the public from sex offenders considered predatory and irredeemable, two decades of data has shown that the recidivism rate for children who commit sex crimes is lower than 3 percent—far lower than the rates for almost any other cohort of people entangled in the legal system.

“For all these reasons, over the last several years, the CYJC has pursued various litigation and policy advocacy avenues toward removing youth from the registry in New Jersey,” Cohen says. “It’s important to remember that children found to have committed offenses still are held accountable and face significant consequences for their actions including, often, incarceration. Registration is an additional, potentially lifelong penalty that bears no rational relationship to community safety or children’s wellbeing.”

woman smiling in front of blue backdrop
Emma Enright ’24

For former clinic student Emma Enright ’24, drafting and finalizing the J.A. brief not only provided an “incredible and valuable” learning experience, but completely transformed her opinion on the sex offender registry and its requirements.

“Research has shown little to no benefit associated with registration and, particularly in the case of youth (who are extremely unlikely to recidivate), often does more harm than good,” she says. “Being cautiously optimistic, I hope the Court's decision is just the beginning and that, eventually, no youth will be subjected to Megan's Law.”

Rutgers Law Media Contact:
Shanida Carter

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