Legislators in states across the country rushed to enact laws to register sex offenders after some horrific cases that involved the abuse of youngsters at the hands of adults. But the laws have also been applied to cases that don't seem to fit the mold of sex predators who deserve a host of restrictions, often for the rest of their lives.
Just last week, two New Jersey boys who were 14 at the time of an offense that some have labeled as horseplay learned they must register for life as sex offenders. The case involves two New Jersey teens – now 16 - who held down a couple of 12-year-old boys and placed their bare buttocks on their faces.
An appellate court has judged the incident to be "roughhousing with sexual connotation." Under New Jersey's Megan's law, this ruling requires the teens to register as sex offenders for the rest of their lives, though they can only apply for a reversal -- in 15 years.
The boys' case had initially gone to trial, where they were found guilty of criminal sexual behavior. When asked to explain their behavior – one boy told the trial judge, "I did it cos I thought it was funny, and I was trying to get my friends to laugh." The trial judge, however, did not see the humor. He deemed the act was intended specifically to degrade the victims and therefore constituted criminal sexual conduct.
The second boy pled guilty to criminal sexual conduct and was given the same penalty. Both then unsuccessfully appealed.
Megan's Law, established in 1994 after the rape and murder of Megan Kamka by a previously convicted sex offender, can apply to young teens and even kids as young as 8. It usually requires those convicted of criminal sexual conduct against a minor to notify police of changes of address and employment for life.
States decide independently how to implement Megan's law, but where juveniles are required to register as sex offenders, it often means the defendant's picture, name, address and the nature of their crime is publicly disseminated. It can also mean the persons on the registry can't live near schools, playgrounds, day care centers or other places where there are children present.
John S. Furlong, a New Jersey sex crime defense attorney, describes Megan's Law as "like a sledgehammer to a thumbtack. Punishment for bullying younger kids should be detention…" he says. "Forcing them to register for Megan's law is first beyond the pale and second, cheapens the law."
Although in this case the perpetrators and victims were similar ages, and both minors – the punishment still applies, meaning the two boys will be placed on the sex offender registry. The boys families appealed the ruling on the grounds that the sentence was unduly harsh; that the act committed amounted to horseplay and did not warrant the boys being forever branded sex offenders.
But judges in the appeals case ruled the action committed did, under the terms of Megan's Law, equate criminal sexual conduct. "Labeling these outrageous acts mere horseplay" runs counter to the clear language defining the offense of criminal sexual," read the appellate opinion. "Legislature defined 'sexual contact' as 'an intentional touching by the victim or actor, either directly or through clothing, of the victim's or actor's intimate parts for the purpose of degrading or humiliating the victim or sexually arousing or sexually gratifying the actor.'"