On January 14, 2014, Governor Chris Christie signed into law S276 which, among other requirements, stipulates that any one with a sex offense conviction whose behavior was found to be compulsive and repetitive at the time of sentencing (most of whom were sentenced to the Adult Diagnostic & Treatment Center [ADTC] must have their name and address and other information about their offenses, published on the State’s Internet Registry.
The bill makes no exception for those assigned to Tier I, the tier associated with those who have the lowest risk of reoffense. Nor does the bill provide an exception for individuals whose crimes involved incest, placing at risk, the identities of victims.
Moreover, the bill applies retroactively, mandating the publication of the identities of all individuals currently assigned to Tier 1 if they had previously found to engage in compulsive and repetitive behavior, regardless of how long ago they may have committed their offense, and regardless of how long they may have lived successfully as law abiding citizens in the state.
One ex-offender, who asked to not be identified for obvious reasons, has lived safely and productively in his community for 17 years since he committed his offense. He now works as a local businessman and fears publication of his identity and sex offense history will destroy his business and thus his livelihood.
Research dating back nearly half-a-century remains unequivocal that the most significant factor in reducing recidivism, is for ex-offenders to establish ties to their communities, become engaged in productive employment or school, and self-identify as law-abiding citizens who have redeemed themselves in the eyes of society. It is unclear how the legislators who voted for this bill conceptualize it as a public safety measure when its likely true effect will be to destabilize those who have been living successfully in their communities, possibly causing them to lose their jobs and housing.
The Legislature’s motives ring particularly hollow in light of a provision in the package of laws intended to reform sentencing for sex offenders passed in the late 90s. One of the clauses in that law required the Department of Corrections to collect data on recidivism rates for the purpose of determining whether or not the ADTC effectively treated their charges.
DOC dutifully complied with the law and beginning in 2001, began publishing recidivism studies on ADTC releases. The first two studies were conducted by ADTC staff and tracked 5 year recidivism rates for those released from the ADTC in 1994 and 1995. The five-year recidivism rate was under 7%. In 2003, they reported on a ten-year followup of individuals released from the ADTC in the early 1990s and found only a 3.8% recidivism rate.
Then, in 2003, researchers from DOC’s central office, and from private practices in New Jersey undertook a comprehensive evaluation of sex offense recidivism rates. Their study was published in a peer reviewed journal and found that, after ten years living in the community, only 8.6% of those released from the ADTC reoffended sexually, compared with 12. 7% of those with sex offense convictions who were released, untreated, from state prison. Moreover, those released from state prison were nearly twice as likely to commit another, non-sexual, criminal offense or parole violation, as ADTC releasees. [Zgoba, K. M., Sager, W. R., & Witt, P. H. (2003). Evaluation of New Jersey’s sex offender treatment program at the Adult Diagnostic & Treatment Center: Preliminary results. The Journal of Psychiatry & Law, 31, 133-164.]
A second study by Dr. Zgoba, published in 2005, confirmed the findings from the 2003 study, showing that ADTC releasees maintained very low reoffense rates. She found that after 7 years in the community 8.2% of those with prior sex offense convictions who were treated at the ADTC reoffended. [Zgoba, K. M., Simon, L. N. J. (2005). Recidivism rates of sexual offenders up to 7 years later. Does treatment matter? Criminal Justice Review, 30(2), 155-173.]
Importantly, all of these studies followed individuals sentenced before parole and community supervision for life restrictions were imposed on those convicted of sex offenses, and before New Jersey began implementing its sexually violent predators (SVPs) civil commitment statute. Consequently, with over 450 individuals civilly committed as SVPs (and thus removed from the sample of individuals who could reoffend, and with the new intensive supervision and reporting requirements associated with Parole/Community Supervision for Life, it would not be unreasonable to assume that the current recidivism rates are even lower.
Significantly, for the rationale behind S276, the recidivism rates reported by these studies reflect average recidivism rates across all releasees. Recidivism risk varies based on multiple factors, which was the purpose behind creating Tier Classifications, to group individuals into low, moderate, and high risk categories. If, on average, 8.6% of those released from the ADTC reoffend after 10 years, the percentage of Tier I, or low risk offenders, must be considerably lower.
In fact, we know this to be the case. In a study just released this month, Canadian researcher, and author of the Static-99R, one of the most widely cited and used instruments for evaluating risk of reoffense among sex offenders, R. Karl Hanson reported his findings tracking over 7,700 sex offenders over 20 years. he found that those scoring in the low risk range on the Static-99R evidenced recidivism rates of between 1%-5%. Crucially, he found that after living in the community for ten years without committing a new offense, the likelihood the individual would commit a sex offense was no higher than the risk of any member of the general population committing a sex offense. [see Hanson, R. K., Harris, A. J. R., Helmus, L., Thornton, D. (March 3, 2014). High-risk Offenders May Not Be High Risk Forever. Journal of Interpersonal Violence.
None of this research should have come as a surprise to the State Legislators. After all, they specifically mandated, as part of the sex offender reform laws they passed in 1998, that ADTC recidivism rates be tracked. With those rates now unequivocally establishing that: a) individuals released from the ADTC after treatment have a sex offense reoffense rate lower than that of individuals convicted of a sex offense but not sent to the ADTC for treatment; and b) that individuals treated and released from the ADTC classified as low risk and assigned to Tier I are substantially less likely to commit a new offense than untreated individuals discharged from state prison.
Thus, S276 potentially creates the following anomalous result: the individual who has functioned safely and successfully in society for 17 years (and whose offense spanned two isolated incidents within a period of a couple of months), rebuilding his life and ties to the community, supporting the State’s economic recovery by sponsoring his own small business, will be put on an Internet Registry that makes no distinction as to degree of risk or use of violence in the offense history.
At the same time, a newly released inmate from Trenton State Prison, one with an extensive history of serially raping his three young daughters over a five year period, one who has participated in no treatment and has evidenced no awareness of the wrongfulness of his actions, gets rated a Tier II. However, because his victims were his own children, he does not get placed on the Registry.
A law which keeps such an individual off the registry while forceably ‘outing’ a 17-year, law abiding citizen, is more than draconian; its arbitrary and capricious. And in the end, society will be less safe.