Monday, March 17, 2008

N.J. needs uniform sex-offender rules

The Legislature should take on the job of restricting where pedophiles can live in communities.

The court battle between Cherry Hill and Galloway townships and the state public defender's office, Legal Services of New Jersey, over restrictions on where convicted sex offenders can live shows why it's imperative that the state Legislature come up with uniform rules on this issue.

The state needs to craft restrictions on where sex offenders can live that protect families while ensuring that those who've paid their debt to society aren't driven to homelessness or constant moving. That makes it harder for authorities to keep tabs on these offenders, thus making communities less safe.

Countless studies have shown that the rates are high for sex offenders repeating their crimes even after they've been convicted and jailed once or more than once. Lawyers for Cherry Hill and Galloway, which both have restrictions on sex offenders that are being challenged, said pedophiles who target boys average 150 victims in their lifetime, while those who target girls average 20 victims.

With this potential threat, towns across the state have had good reason over the past few years to pass laws prohibiting sex offenders from living within certain distances of schools, playgrounds, day-care centers, parks and other places children might gather.

The problem has been that these laws differ from town to town, making it difficult for released sex offenders to know exactly where they can live and not be in violation. Another problem has been that in some towns, the distance rules have meant that the entire community is off limits because every house or apartment is within the specified number of feet from a location where there are children.

This is troublesome because it can lead to sex offenders moving around a lot or even moving out of state, which makes it much harder to keep sex-offender public databases up to date and harder for law enforcement to monitor them.

In Florida, the restrictions on where sex offenders can live are so stringent that many have taken to living under bridges and causeways in industrial areas. Many more have disappeared and the state is unsure of their whereabouts.

This is not what New Jersey needs to have happen, even if it might seem like just punishment for those who have sexually violated children.

To rescue towns from having to engage in expensive legal battles like the one Cherry Hill and Galloway are now in, to make the restrictions clear and known to all sex offenders and to make sure these people stay under the watchful eye of police and parole officers, state legislators must craft a single, uniform set of restrictions on how close convicted pedophiles can live to schools, parks and other such places. They must also make sure the law is crafted in such a way that it will stand up to any legal challenge from sex offenders and take this issue off the table of local elected officials.

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