Assemblyman Ron Dancer announced this month that he will sponsor a bill to require public employees to forfeit their pensions if convicted of offenses under the state’s Prevention of Domestic Violence Act.
The Ocean County Republican said he would have submitted his legislation in October, which is Domestic Violence Awareness and Prevention Month, but the Assembly lacks the quorum to do so. Incumbents are out campaigning ahead of November’s election, so Dancer said he’ll file the bill after that.
There’s no question domestic violence offenses such as assault and stalking are serious, but Dancer’s proposal would be a dramatic departure from current pension forfeiture law, one that would create problems and is unneeded.
New Jersey’s pension forfeiture law revokes the pensions of public employees if they are convicted of a variety of serious offenses related to their position or work, including official misconduct, corruption and bribery.
Just this past summer, the Legislature passed and Gov. Phil Murphy signed an appropriate expansion of the law, adding criminal sexual contact, sexual assault and lewdness to the list of applicable offenses.
Dancer’s proposal, though, would revoke the pensions of public workers for convictions that have nothing to do with their government position or work. One problem with that is it would add a severe penalty for domestic violence offenses that doesn’t exist for a multitude of other serious offenses. Another is that there already are laws against and penalties for domestic violence, and if legislators and the people of New Jersey consider them insufficient, the proper response would be to strengthen them, not create a unique and unrelated punishment.
Worse, depriving domestic-violence perpetrators could actually add to the injury of victims who are spouses. Under New Jersey law regarding property division in a divorce, a spouse might be entitled to the equivalent of half of such a pension’s value. If the state revoked that pension, the victim could lose out too.
Pension forfeiture should be reserved for instances where the public employee’s criminal behavior is related to or made possible by their government position.
Many people are waiting to see if that law applies to public employees — many from the Jersey Shore — who participated in the multimillion-dollar scheme to defraud the state health benefits system. Crimes specified for pension forfeiture that might apply include “acceptance or receipt of unlawful benefit by public servant for official behavior,” or “false contract payment claims” or “theft by deception, if the amount involved exceeds $10,000.”
That will be a matter for prosecutors and courts to decide. As we’ve said, keeping the pension benefit they had contributed to and accrued up until their arrest seems appropriate, but not eligibility for ongoing government-provided health benefits.
Public workers defrauding their own government benefits surely is a crime related to their position of public trust. That should remain a baseline requirement for pension forfeiture, especially where other laws and penalties should be adequate.