Keeping juveniles on sex-offender registry doesn’t make sense

Written By BY MARK BROWN Posted: 04/27/2014, 12:36am

The Illinois Sex Offender Registry includes the names of more than 2,500 individuals who were found guilty of a sex offense as a juvenile — 70 percent of them required to carry the label for life.

Because of the lifetime registration requirement, the list grows longer every year — even as the number of juveniles arrested for sex crimes in Illinois has been shrinking.

These individuals go through life bound by the same restrictions as adult sexual predators — limiting where they can live and where they can go in public, even requiring that they provide a travel itinerary to authorities if they plan to be absent from their registered address for three or more days.

And it doesn’t make a lick of sense.

A new study made public Tuesday by the Illinois Juvenile Justice Commission recommends removing young people from the state’s sex-offender registry, calling the practice “counter-productive.”

I might have substituted “stupid” or “foolish,” but that’s why they don’t appoint columnists to state commissions.

There is no evidence that putting young people into sex-offender registries makes the public any safer or prevents the individual from committing additional crimes, and there is plenty of evidence the registries make it that much more difficult for the offenders to be rehabilitated, the study found.

Sex-offender registries were created based on the popular notion of “once a sex offender, always a sex offender.”

In the case of juvenile sex offenders, that’s absolutely a mistaken perception.

“Research over the last few decades has conclusively established that youth are highly amenable to treatment and highly unlikely to sexually reoffend,” the commission reported.

The report caught my attention because I think we’ve gone overboard in the last 10 to 20 years to turn any criminal conviction into a lifetime of punishment — no matter the terms of the original sentence. Applying these registries to juveniles as part of our better-safe-than-sorry culture just strikes me as going way too far.

As the report makes clear, youth sex offenders have little in common with adult sex offenders — and are extremely unlikely to become one.

George Timberlake, a retired judge from southeastern Illinois who chairs the commission, said young people who commit sex offenses are usually characterized by developmental issues such as immaturity, developmental delays, poor social skills and difficulties coping with prior sexual abuse.

“When you look a juvenile sex offender in the eye in the courtroom, you see a kid looking back at you,” Timberlake told me.

Except in rare cases, these aren’t individuals acting out deviate sexual fantasies.

“For many of them, they don’t know they shouldn’t do that,” Timberlake said.

Illinois began requiring adults convicted of certain sex offenses to register in 1986. In 1999, a law was enacted to require juveniles “adjudicated delinquent” to register as well. In addition to the 70 percent required to register for life, the other 30 percent must register for 10 years.

Failure to register is a felony offense.

The commission makes clear that it is not trying to minimize the seriousness of these offenses or the harm to the victims, and neither am I. But the entire juvenile justice system is built on the concept that we should not treat children as if they were adults, and there’s no valid reason for making an exception for this group.

According to the study, half the young people detained or jailed for sexual offenses in Illinois were 14 or younger. One in eight were not yet teenagers. Slightly more than half were white, which includes some Latinos. Not surprisingly, 95 percent were male.

Most victims are family members. Few victims are strangers.

The number of youths arrested for sex offenses is actually relatively small — and declining. There were only 232 such arrests in 2010, the most recent year for which data was available, down from 434 in 2004.

At the same time, the number of juveniles in the sex-offender registry has climbed from 1,978 in 2008 to 2,533 last year — because it’s a mark of dishonor that can last for life.

That lasting stigma and shame of being a registered sex offender can make some young people lose hope, believing that it’s something they will never overcome.

Illinois is only one of 20 states that puts juveniles on sex-offender registries, regardless of their risk of committing another offense. Another 19 states impose registration requirements on a more limited basis with at least some degree of individualized risk assessment. Eleven states have no juvenile registry.

The commission reports there is an increasing recognition by courts and legislatures in other states that imposing lifelong consequences for acts committed as a child are unnecessary and, there’s that word again, counter-productive.

This would be productive time for Illinois to join them.

Email: markbrown@suntimes.com

Twitter: @MarkBrownCST

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