New Jersey Authorizes Ban of Sex Offenders’ Internet Access

By Eric Goldman

New Jersey S1979 (signed December 27, 2007)

New Jersey has passed a law allowing various punishment authorities (judges, parole officers, etc.) to restrict Internet use by convicted sex offenders. The main operative restriction says that these authorities may:

Prohibit the person from accessing or using a computer or any other device with Internet capability without the prior written approval of the court except the person may use a computer or any other device with Internet capability in connection with that person’s employment or search for employment with the prior approval of the person’s parole officer

Other restrictions may include unannounced inspection of their computers, devices to monitor Internet use and other appropriate restrictions.

Some observations about this law (expanding on my comments here):

1) There is an obvious grammar ambiguity. The law allows the restriction of a “computer or any other device with Internet capability.” Read literally, this appears to enable the restricted use of a computer even if it’s not connected to the Internet. I don’t think that’s what the legislature meant, but it may be what they said.

2) This law is a small example of a much broader social effort to strip sex offenders of civil liberties. Legislators love to pass laws that appear to protect kids from Internet threats, and sex offenders (a) are an obvious target and (b) have zero political clout to combat these efforts. As a result, legislators can pass laws reducing sex offenders’ rights without any opposition. (Like most laws of its ilk, this law passed unanimously at every level of review.) I say more about sex offenders as the new pariah here.

3) I would support these laws if social science confirmed (or even suggested…) that the restrictions actually might curb recidivism or otherwise protect kids. However, these laws typically have no social science behind them. As a result, we don’t know in advance if the laws are likely to help–or hurt–the situation.

For example, the laws restricting the residence of registered sex offenders (i.e., can’t live within 2000 feet of a school) have caused some sex offenders to move out of urban areas (thus potentially limiting their employment prospects), left other sex offenders homeless and caused yet others to drop out of the supervision of their parole/probation officer. Do these outcomes reduce recidivism? There is an answer to this Q; but I don’t know it, and I’m guessing our legislators don’t either. Similarly, could cutting off sex offenders from the Internet backfire? We should know the answer before proceeding. [UPDATE: This article lays out this argument better than I did.]

4) In 10 years, the Internet exceptionalism of this law will be comically anachronistic. When the Internet is everywhere, there is no way to “wall off” the Internet and stop using it. The Internet can be accessed through computers, of course, but it’s also accessed through cellphones, handheld devices and smart appliances–all of which are seemingly potentially off-limits under this law. A TiVo can access the Internet–is that off-limits to sex offenders? When a refrigerator is Internet-accessible, will that be off-limits? Cars are Internet-connected; are they off-limits too? This law makes about as much sense as banning sex offenders from using our road system (which they also use to commit their crimes). The Internet is part of our infrastructure and impossible to avoid, and there is no way to fence it off.

As we have seen over and over again, Internet-related legislation can succeed only when it regulates bad behavior, not “bad” technology. Kicking sex offenders off the Internet as a prophylactic sounds great in theory, but I’m guessing in practice it won’t help and might hurt the cause.