By Melanie Burney
TRENTON - A bill that would exempt New Jersey teenagers caught sexting with their peers from registering as sex offenders stalled in the Assembly on Thursday.
The measure was scheduled for a vote by the full Assembly but hit a last-minute snag, said Wayne P. D'Angelo (D., Mercer), one of its sponsors.
"It was a done deal," D'Angelo said, adding that he was "highly disappointed" by the setback, which stemmed from a provision that would impose a $30 monthly fee on sex offenders to pay for increased oversight by parole officers.
A similar version cleared the full Senate by a 35-0 vote this year.
The bill would make changes to Megan's Law that lawmakers say are needed to address a growing problem with minors who "sext" explicit photos, videos, or texts from one cellphone to another.
Under the current law, teens caught "sexting" must receive the same treatment as sex offenders convicted under the law, first adopted in 1994. They must register, and the community must be notified.
"Essentially, they're branded for life as sex offenders," said Sen. Linda R. Greenstein (D., Middlesex), one of the bill's Senate sponsors.
"We're not justifying sexting. We're only saying that it should not be a Megan's Law offense," she said.
Maureen Kanka, whose daughter, Megan, 7, was raped and killed by a neighbor who was a convicted sex offender in Hamilton Township, told lawmakers at a committee hearing last month that she wanted to keep teens who were not serious predators off the registry.
New Jersey became the first state in the country to adopt Megan's Law, and many states and the federal government followed suit.
Under the proposed changes, minors who share nude photos of themselves with other minors could be adjudicated as delinquent in Family Court, but would no longer be subject to the offender registry.
Other provisions would toughen penalties for adult offenders and for those who fail to notify authorities when they move.
In a compromise to avoid a possible conditional veto by Gov. Christie, a provision that would have set a 40-caseload maximum for parole officers who supervise offenders was struck from the bill, D'Angelo said.
But the bill ran into trouble when Democrats balked at the $30 fee, he said.
- Charging someone a fee like that is pretty much extortion in our opinion.
D'Angelo said the bill may come up again Jan. 6.