Friday, March 23, 2007

New Jersey considers banning sex offenders from Internet use; Constitutional issues raised

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Released sex offenders would be barred from using the Internet and online dating sites would face new security rules under bills to be considered today by the Senate amid worries about child safety on the computer.

"We're living in some very scary times," said Senate President Richard J. Codey, who is sponsoring the legislative package that has raised constitutional questions and opposition from Internet companies.

Under the plan, released sex offenders caught using the Internet would face up to 18 months in jail and fines of up to $10,000.

Sex offenders caught using the Internet to solicit a child would face a mandatory five years in jail, rather than the three years they face under current law.

A bill also would require online dating sites to notify New Jersey residents whether they do background checks, a proposal opposed by Internet companies such as Yahoo!, AOL, eHarmony and Match.com.

"Criminal background checks provide users of online dating with a false sense of security," said Bill Ashworth, director of state government affairs at Yahoo!

No federal law imposes Internet restrictions on convicted sex offenders, but Florida and Nevada have enacted such measures.

A U.S. Department of Justice survey of youths ages 10 to 17 found that about one in five received a sexual solicitation or approach over the Internet.

Such findings have prompted new laws in some states.

Colorado banned anyone from using a computer to talk to an unrelated child under age 15 without parental permission if the person is at least four years older than the child. Kansas and Oklahoma made electronic solicitation of a child a crime.

Under the New Jersey proposal, which has not yet been considered by the Assembly, convicted sex offenders would have to submit to periodic, unannounced examinations of their computer equipment, install equipment on their computer so its use could be monitored and inform law enforcement if they have access to a computer.

The state public defender's office has said it will look into the constitutional ramifications and expressed concern that barring juvenile sex offenders from the Internet would deny them educational opportunities.


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