Should Convicted Sex Offenders Have Restricted Internet Access?

By Brenda Flanagan

Imagine this figure is “J.I.” — a convicted, registered sex offender in his mid-60s, now out on parole but under lifetime supervision as a compulsive, potential repeat offender. He served seven years for sexually molesting his own young daughters. But after New Jersey’s Parole Board totally barred J.I.’s access to the internet — a blanket ban — he sued. And this week he won his case before the state Supreme Court. J.I. wouldn’t grant an interview, but his lawyer says he’s thrilled.

“He’s pretty happy knowing that he’ll be able to finally get back looking for a job, which has in many ways been stole by the inability to use a computer just over the last roughly year and a half or so that this imposition’s been in place,” said Michael Woyce.

J.I.’s lawyers admit, he did access websites with nude figures when first paroled. That landed him back in prison for 16 months. But he subsequently avoided those sites.

“And after his release from that, showed no indication that he would use the internet either for pornography or any other illicit or sexual material,” Woyce said.

But he kept going online. So New Jersey’s Parole Board ultimately imposed a complete internet blackout on J.I. without explaining precisely why or giving him a chance to argue his case. The high court called that, “arbitrary and unreasonable,” adding, “…parole authorities do not have unbridled discretion to impose unnecessary or oppressive internet conditions. … Access to the internet is considered to be a basic need and one of the most meaningful ways to participate in the essentials of everyday life.” The court called for a do-over.

“It’s sending it back down to the Parole Board for development of a process by which they make a determination — is this really necessary in this particular case?” explained Rutgers Law School Dean Ronald Chen.

Chen submitted a legal brief on J.I.’s behalf. He says the Parole Board could impose partial bans — like no access to social media websites — and could monitor a parolee’s online activity to ensure compliance. Some cases might require strict bans.

“If you use the internet in committing your underlying crime, that shows you have a predilection to using the internet for predatory activities. That could be a reason to restrict your access to the internet,” Chen said.

But punishing registered sex offenders with blanket internet restrictions can just make it harder for them to re-enter society. Former parolee Darryl Brooks — convicted of exposing himself — also fought the Parole Board over an internet ban and won.

“If people have no internet sex charges or crimes, they should not be banned from the internet. It sends people back into the Stone Age,” he said. “When you’re banned from the internet, you can’t look for jobs. So how are you going to take care of your family?”

The Parole Board had argued it needs the discretion to impose and remove internet access in response to an offender’s behavior to assist in rehabilitating him and to protect the public. The state Attorney General’s Office — which argued the case for the Parole Board — had no comment on the court’s decision.