By Andrew Schmertz
When Dion Harrell got out of prison for a rape he did not commit, he spent the next 20 years on New Jersey’s sex offender registry. Only when he was formally cleared this month did his name come off a list that carries a lifetime of stigma.
The case has put a spotlight on whether the registry — created by Megan’s Law and designed to notify parents of predators nearby — is too broad and even ineffective.
“It’s so problematic because it results in job loss. The registrants have a very hard time finding stable housing. It results in harassment, physical violence, property damage and an overall stigmatization,” said Deputy Public Defender Fletcher Duddy.
In Harrell’s case, he wasn’t guilty of anything. But others end up on the list for what many say are questionable crimes.
Vanessa Potkin is a senior attorney with , a nonprofit group which works to clear the wrongly convicted.
“You will hear of cases where you have essentially two teenagers have consensual sex, but it’s statutory rape,” said Vanessa Potkin, a senior attorney with The Innocence Project.
Those convicted of sex crimes are put into one of three tiers, resulting in different levels of scrutiny.
Tier 1 is for those considered low risk of harming others. They need to report to the police once a year, but don’t appear on the online registry.
Tier 2 is moderate risk and requires registration on the internet — which is publicly searchable.
And tier 3 is high risk. Along with the internet registration, police or prosecutors go door to door warning neighbors a sex offender lives nearby.
“I have a daughter, she’s 10. Absolutely, you want to have some sort of guard, barrier or borders to protect. And also you want to know who’s in your neighborhood. I think that’s key. As a pastor I do believe in second chances,” Reverend Quentin Sutton said.
State police report there are about 4,300 people on the registry, but victims rights advocates say many who should be on the list are not. That’s because they say 99 percent of these cases in the state are pled out, resulting in lower charges through plea deals.
“When a defendant is offered a plea bargain that includes Megan’s Law they reject it because they don’t want to be on the list,” Richard Pompelio from the NJ Crime Victims’ Law Center said.
Still, Pompelio says the strongest benefit of the registry is the empowerment it has given parents and the education it has provided to prosecutors and judges about victims.
“In order to protect people, we need to make them aware of certain situations, make parents more aware and the educational process is not limited to the potential victims or family members. The educational process really has to be focused on the people in the system, namely the prosecutors and the judges,” said Pompelio.
But he also agrees that the law is too broad, taking needed police resources away from tracking offenders who are dangerous, and stigmatizing those who are not.
Last winter, several civil rights groups sued the federal government, claiming a new international Megan’s Law is unconstitutional. But reforming a law protecting a group as unpopular as sex offenders, may be a tough sell.