Sunday, July 19, 2009

Experts Say Registry Ruins Juvenile's 2nd Chance : Justice experts say sex offender registry ruins a juvenile's 2nd chance.

The faces of child sex offenders are startling. "Those are not the people that we're walking around terrified of," says Michele Deitch, a University of Texas law professor.

The inclusion of children as young as 10 on the state's public sex offender registry is a little-known policy – even to juvenile justice experts such as Deitch.

"I'm absolutely a little bit shocked that kids that young can be on the list," says Deitch, who teaches juvenile justice policy at the LBJ School of Public Affairs.

She's stunned because public registration contradicts the purpose of juvenile justice: to give kids a second chance. In the case of some juvenile sex offenders, their criminal records are off limits, but information about their crime is easily accessible on the Internet.

"It is a terrible situation," Deitch says. "The juvenile justice system is designed to rehabilitate kids and to make sure that they can change."

According to the Texas Department of Public Safety, there is no minimum age for inclusion on the state list. But a child must be at least 10 to be handled by the state juvenile justice system, so a judge may order an offender that young to register. No child can be certified as an adult in Texas until age 14.

In some states, children can be registered at age 7, though Nicole Pittman, a Philadelphia attorney who monitors juvenile sex offender registration laws nationwide, says adjudication of children younger than 10 is rare. Only two children currently under 14 are on the registry, but the inclusion of any child that young bothers many, including some victim advocates.

Annette Burrhus-Clay, executive director of the Texas Association Against Sexual Assault has been working with sexual assault victims for decades and was stunned to hear young children are included.

She worries that sexual abuse may go unreported as a result. "If I found my 10-year-old child with my 7-year-old child, I would be very tempted – even after 30 years in the field – not to report my child just to keep them off the registry."

But not everyone opposes registration of young teens. Dianne Clements, president of Justice for All, a Houston-based victims' rights organization, says the state's current system of judicial discretion with juvenile offenders works. "We don't want to believe that children can do the types of horrible things that they do," she says. "But they do. And whether they're 13 or 23 years old, they can be as dangerous."

Nationally, the Adam Walsh Act calls for mandatory registration of sex offenders ages 14 and older. Ernie Allen, president of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, says, "Congress got it about right by setting that 14-year level." He does, however, favor judicial discretion over mandatory registration.

Publicizing their names and addresses often leads to social isolation because parents don't want their kids associating with sex offenders. School officials must be notified of the offender's history, and registration makes getting accepted to college or finding work difficult.

"We're stigmatizing children who have a much better chance of success completing sex offender treatment and never perpetrating again," Burrhus-Clay says.

Zimring says the laws allowing juvenile registration are an accidental byproduct of adult policies.

"Nobody is making policy for 12-year-olds in American legislatures," the professor says. "What they're doing is they're making crime policy and then almost by accident extending those policies to 12-year-olds – with poisonous consequences." Zimring thinks it's inappropriate to register anyone adjudicated as a juvenile – which would be anyone under 18 in Texas.