By NJ Law Journal Editorial Board, May 25, 2018
This is how law and social science are meant to intersect. The case reminds us that, as our knowledge of human behavior evolves, our approach to legal issues will evolve as well.
When he was a teenager, defendant CK perpetrated an aggravated sexual assault on his younger brother. The abuse was not revealed until CK was 23. He pled guilty, received a three-year probationary term and was required to comply with relevant Megan’s Law provisions.
Between the time of the abuse and its revelation, CK obtained an undergraduate degree in psychology and a master’s degree in counseling. He ultimately became employed by a nonprofit agency for mentally disabled adults. Over time, he turned down many career opportunities for fear that a background check would reveal his sex offender status. It is now 20 years since CK’s unlawful conduct and 14 years since his adjudication.
N.J.S.A 2C:7-2 subjects all sex offenders, including juveniles, to presumptive lifetime registration and notification requirements, but allows a registrant to seek relief from those requirements 15 years after his adjudication, provided he has been offense-free and is “not likely to pose a threat to the safety of others.” However, another provision of the statute, N.J.S.A. 2C:7-2(g), declares that persons convicted of certain sex offenses, including the one committed by CK, are barred for life from applying to terminate their registration requirements, even when they no longer pose a public safety risk and are fully rehabilitated. CK filed a post-conviction relief petition challenging that irrebuttable presumption as applied to juveniles. At an evidentiary hearing, CK presented five experts who testified to the current research on the low recidivism rate of juvenile sex offenders, and also expert opinion regarding individualized risk assessment of CK and the negative impact of the registration requirements on his life.
The petition was denied, and the case made its way to the New Jersey Supreme Court. In State of New Jersey in the Interest of CK (A-15-16), the court addressed the issue from both legal and social science perspectives. It noted the judicial recognition that has been afforded the differences between adults and juveniles, citing various United States Supreme Court decisions declaring unconstitutional: capital punishment on juvenile offenders, Roper v. Simmons, 543 U.S. 551, 568-70 (2005); life without parole on juveniles convicted of non-homicide offenses, Graham v. Florida, 560 U.S. 48, 82 (2010); and mandatory life without parole on juveniles convicted of homicide offenses, Miller v. Alabama, 567 U.S. 460, 489 (2012). The court also made reference to its holding in State v. Zuber, which, in the wake of Roper, Graham and Miller, declared that sentencing judges must consider “the mitigating qualities of youth” and “exercise a heightened level of care before they impose multiple consecutive sentences on juveniles which would result in lengthy jail terms.” 227 N.J. 422, 429-30 (2017).
Ultimately the court looked to sociological studies to the effect that juveniles do not have immutable psychological or behavioral characteristics, but are “works in progress” with age tempering the “impetuosity, immaturity and shortsightedness of youth.” In addition, the court accepted the expert testimony in the record, which concluded that the risk of juvenile recidivism is particularly low for those like CK who have not reoffended for a long period of time. With that as prologue, the court determined that what it characterized as an irrebuttable presumption of irredeemability violates the substantive due process guarantees of article I, paragraph 1, of our Constitution because it does not bear a reasonable relationship to a legitimate state interest when applied to juveniles. Thus the court declared CK eligible, when 15 years from his adjudication have passed, to seek the lifting of his sex-offender registration requirements based on clear and convincing evidence that he has not reoffended and no longer poses a threat to others.
This is how law and social science are meant to intersect. The case reminds us that, as our knowledge of human behavior evolves, our approach to legal issues will evolve as well. Although the same constitutional tests will be applied, the outcomes may change as our insights into the human condition are sharpened.