The Essex County Prosecutor’s Office established its Megan’s Law Unit in January of 1995 in response to state legislation designed to protect potential victims from convicted sex offenders. The law is named after a seven year old girl who was sexually assaulted and murdered by a neighbor recidivist. Simply put, the promise of Megan’s Law is that if people know about a sex offender’s presence in their community, the better able they are to safeguard against potential victimization.
The Unit is responsible for evaluating whether or not a convicted sex offender is at risk of committing a new sex offense. These evaluations are made in accordance with guidelines established by the Attorney General’s Office and are triggered when a sex offender is released from prison or sentenced to probation. The seriousness of the offender’s past conviction(s), their offense history, their personal characteristics, and their community support are all analyzed. Additionally, these reviews may include an evaluation of the offender’s prison records, school and employment records, and conduct while under parole or probation. Upon completion of this process, a report is compiled establishing a risk level. After notice to the offender, a hearing is held (on Tier 2 and Tier 3 cases, i.e. the more serious cases) before a judge who makes the final determination of the offender’s status. Depending upon the tier level, school and/or community notification may be initiated. Additionally, recent changes in the Megan’s Law statute effective January 1, 2002 have added sex offender notification of some offenders to the Internet.
There are three types of Tier classifications. Tier 1 offenders are deemed low-risk and notification on them is limited to the police departments where the offender lives and/or works and the N.J. State Police. Tier 2 offenders are considered moderate-risk and notification on them is sent to all schools, day-care centers, women’s shelters and registered community organizations within an area where the offender is “likely to encounter” potential victims. Tier 3 offenders are considered high risk and all residences, businesses, schools, day care centers, women’s shelters and registered community organizations within the offender’s “likely to encounter” zone are given notice. The court determines the geographic scope of notification and the types of institutions to be notified in Tier 2 and Tier 3 cases. Local law enforcement agencies and the State Police also receive notice in these cases.
With respect to Internet cases, all Tier 3 offenders and certain Tier 2 offenders are Internet eligible. As previously mentioned, all Tier 2 and Tier 3 offenders are entitled to a judicial hearing and it is the judge who makes the final determination of whether or not an offender will be listed on the Internet and/or some type of community notification will be made. If the court rules that a case is Internet eligible, the offender’s name, county of residence, date of birth, physical attributes, type of conviction, modus operandi and photograph will be published. His street address and the municipality in which he lives will NOT be included. In addition to Internet notification, community notification will also be ordered according to the “likely to encounter” standard. If the court rules that an offender is not eligible for the Internet but still finds that they are a Tier 2 or Tier 3 offender, then notification will proceed as outlined above.
The Megan’s Law Unit is the busiest Megan’s Law Unit in the State of New Jersey. Essex County has more registered sex offenders residing within it than any other County, generally between 1,200 and 1,500 sex offenders at any given time. As of November 6, 2009, there were 1,251 sex offenders registered in Essex County, with approximately 300 more incarcerated in state and county prisons as well as nearly 200 more housed in several state institutions under various civil commitment laws.
Due to the transient nature of a significant portion of the sex offender population in Essex County, the number of court hearings required and conducted can be voluminous. This is due to the fact that, even after the tiering process is completed by the issuance of a court order, a sex offender is entitled by law to a new court hearing every time he or she moves to a new address within Essex County, or moves into Essex County from elsewhere. The Megan’s Law Unit must then conduct a new notification regarding the offender, encompassing his or her new area of residence. During 2008, approximately 68 such offenders were afforded a new hearing, requiring community re-notification. Transient sex offenders also consume time, resources and manpower spent on locating, tracking and verifying their whereabouts on a continuing basis. Additionally, a Megan’s Law file can only be closed if a registered sex offender dies, or is relieved by way of a court order of all Megan’s Law obligations. Thus, the overall number of Megan’s Law cases or files being handled by the Unit increases on an annual basis.
In July of 2009, the Megan’s Law Unit launched the Megan’s Law Fugitive Initiative. This program is a collaborative and systematic effort by the Essex County Prosecutors Office, along with federal, state, county and local law enforcement agencies, to make our communities safer from sex offenders. The Initiative is a team effort focused on the apprehension of Megan’s Law offenders from Essex County with outstanding warrants, and those who are in violation of the statutes governing mandatory registration with the appropriate law enforcement agencies, as well as sex offenders who are non-compliant with the conditions of Community Supervision for Life where applicable. The initiative is modeled after the U.S. Marshals’ Operation Falcon Fugitive Program which is based on the collaboration of various law enforcement agencies to achieve a common goal. Thus far, the Megan’s Law Fugitive Initiative is credited with the location and apprehension of 18 Megan’s Law fugitives in New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, Alabama, Puerto Rico and South America.
In 2014, there were approximately 1,581 offenders registered in Essex County. The Megan’s Law Unit indicted 81 sex offenders at the Grand Jury in 2014. This number represents a steady volume in the number of violations sex offenders in Essex County have committed pertaining to Megan’s Law, Community Supervision for Life and the New Jersey Sex Offender Monitoring Act.
The Megan’s Law Unit also focuses on the training of law enforcement personnel and the education of the public through Megan’s Law seminars. The unit has hosted a day-long training seminar for all municipal, county and state law enforcement personnel working in Essex County. The unit also provided public education seminars to eight different community groups including the Essex County Community and Clergy Coalition and the Mayor and Council of the Township of Nutley.