The New Jersey court system has spoken on the issue of sex offender residency restrictions, and the Phillipsburg Town Council is being forced to listen.
Town Council on Tuesday night introduced a measure to repeal a municipal ordinance adopted in 2005 that bars sex offenders convicted of crimes against minors from living within 1,000 feet of a school and 2,500 feet of a park/playground.
Council’s decision comes after the court system ruled it unconstitutional for municipalities to set sex offender residency limitations. The courts ruled that the state Legislature pre-empted any municipal action through Megan’s Law.
“As a result, municipalities cannot make more or less onerous decisions than what is established by the state Legislature,” noted Phillipsburg Town Attorney Richard Wenner.
The court system made the ruling several years ago that sex offender residency limitations like the ones enacted in Phillipsburg were unconstitutional.
Phillipsburg officials nonetheless opted to keep their town’s ordinance in place until just recently, upon receiving a letter from the Warren County Prosecutor’s Office that stated any local ordinances attempting to regulate sex offender residency “are null and void due to the pre-emption of the subject matter by the State of New Jersey.”
Wenner said municipalities throughout New Jersey with sex offender residency ordinances similar to Phillipsburg’s have either repealed them or are in the process of repealing.
The current Phillipsburg measure to repeal the town's sex offender residency limitations states, in part, that “New Jersey State Courts have determined that the state has enacted a comprehensive system to protect society from the risk of re-offense by convicted sex offenders and to provide for rehabilitation and integration into the community.”
Council will first have to hold a public hearing before the sex offender residency limitation ordinance can be repealed. That hearing will likely be held in February.
Under the state’s Megan’s Law, signed into law in 1994, all convicted sex offenders are required to register with the authorities. A convicted sex offender is required to inform law enforcement upon moving.
Megan’s Law includes an Internet registry, which contains a search engine by geographic location. Currently residing within the Phillipsburg zip code are 29 offenders, according to the New Jersey online registry, which is administered by the state police.
Conflicting points of view
The issue of whether convicted pedophiles should be banned from residing near schools and other locations frequented by children had been a hot-button legal topic in recent years in New Jersey.
Back in 2007, a sex offender residency limitation ordinance adopted in the southern New Jersey municipality of Galloway Township was shot down by Judge Valerie Armstrong. Since that time, municipalities around the state have been repealing such measures.
The American Center for Law and Justice represented Galloway Township in an ill-fated appeal of the Superior Court banning its pedophile-free zone.
"The decision by Judge Armstrong is flawed on many levels," said Vincent McCarthy, a senior attorney with the American Center for Law and Justice, back in 2007. "Galloway's ordinances are in general agreement with New Jersey law. To say that a municipality cannot act because the state has acted around similar issues is faulty reasoning. A municipality has a right and duty to act on behalf of its children if it believes the state's action is insufficient, as long as the municipality's ordinance does not conflict with state law.
"The people of New Jersey understand that the rights of innocent should not be sacrificed to accommodate the desires of convicted sex offenders. The children of New Jersey deserve better than Judge Armstrong's ruling."
Meanwhile, groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union claim ordinances establishing pedophile-free zones do more harm than good. In a press release previously posted on the New Jersey ACLU Web site, Executive Director Deborah Jacobs said these ordinances not only violate a person's constitutional right to choose where to reside, they also are ineffective.
"The vast majority of sex offenses are committed by trusted adults -- family members, friends, clergy -- and go unreported because of manipulation of the victims, unconscionable decisions by other adults, or both," she said. "Because the most common type of sex crime so often goes unreported, most sex offenders never become part of the criminal justice system and therefore are not affected by Megan's Law or banishment zone laws. As a result, these laws give the public a false sense of security, letting us believe that sex offenders have been exiled from their neighborhood, or that if a sex offender does live nearby, we will receive notification of his presence. If we believe that, we are fooling ourselves and, worse, doing our children a disservice. Sex offenders live in every American community, and children need supervision no matter what.
"Laws like banishment zone ordinances actually make us less safe, as they impede offender rehabilitation and thereby increase the likelihood of re-offense. People who transition from prison into society face countless challenges, and most have very limited resources, financial or otherwise. People who want to lead law-abiding lives after serving a prison sentence need to establish stability in their homes, jobs and families. Those are difficult things to achieve, but add to this the consequences of Megan's Law and limits to where offenders can live, and few have hope of succeeding. Indeed, the fear of the stigma of Megan's Law can force offenders underground, out of the watchful eye of police and parole officers."