DelawareOnline: Offender registry called too strict - Delaware's list includes juveniles as young as 9.
Their youthful faces stare from the pages of Delaware’s online sex offender registry, some obviously scared, some scowling, some expressionless.
These are photographs of children who committed sex crimes. They are branded, a condemnation that can haunt them forever.
Delaware has some of the youngest sex offender registrants in the nation – one as young as 9 – according to backers of legislation that would give Family Court judges some discretion in deciding which juveniles belong on the registry and which do not.
In registering offenders who are younger than 14, Delaware’s registry system is more stringent than required by the federal Adam Walsh Act, a law that some states complain is too strict.
Due to political, legal and social concerns, the push to give Family Court judges a say in the matter has run into a wall of opposition. Attorney General Beau Biden opposes the legislation. Election-minded legislators don't want to give opponents the opportunity to paint them as soft on sex offenders. Publicity about sex crimes has made the issue of sexual offenses even more politically toxic.
"I can't even get it out of committee," said Rep. Melanie George, D-Bear, referring to the bill she introduced last year that would give Family Court judges the power to decide if children younger than 14 should be listed on the registry. It also would give them discretion to decide whether juveniles older than 14 should be listed if they are convicted of certain lower-level offenses.
A law like that might have kept "Kevin's" name off the registry. But thanks to what critics say is Delaware's one-size-fits-all system, he's a marked man. Now in his 20s and living in another state, Kevin agreed to an e-mail interview on the condition that his real name and certain details of his case be withheld.
At age 13, Kevin was caught "messing around" with a younger child and was convicted of two misdemeanor sex offenses. "We were just kids," he said, describing the encounter as consensual but declining to go into detail. Juvenile records are sealed and not available for review.
Kevin's listing as a moderate-risk offender put him on the registry -- listings of low-risk offenders can be accessed only by law enforcement -- and being on the public registry has followed him into adulthood.
Like all registered sex offenders, Kevin must provide his name, date of birth, address, employer, driver's license number, Social Security number, professional licenses, passport, immigration status and school affiliations to the offender registry. He must update any change in these details of his life within three days or face a felony charge. His photo, name, physical description, address, car license number and crime are on display to anyone. There are restrictions on where he can live, and his status is a red flag on job applications.
"All this has done is made my life difficult. It's not like the public is being protected. I was just 13," Kevin said. Kevin said the incident was his one and only legal offense. His name did not appear during a search of Delaware Superior Court and Court of Common Pleas records.
It's tales such as Kevin's that bother Lisa Minutola, chief of legal services for the Public Defender's Office. Minutola has spoken with a few youth offenders whose names still appear on the registry years later, and "they definitely had horror stories of not being able to get employment, not being able to get an education," she said.
According to Minutola, the Delaware registry has one person who was listed at age 9 who is now in his teens. Three individuals were placed on the registry at age 10, she said. The registry, which has 2,725 entries, isn't searchable by age.
Only six states actually define the youngest age at which an offender must be registered, "which leaves open the possibility that even very young children who evidence sexual behavior problems may be subject to registration," according to the Center for Sex Offender Management, a project of the U.S. Department of Justice. Of the six states that do define the youngest registration age, North Carolina sets the limit at 11; Indiana, Ohio, Idaho and Oklahoma begin registering offenders at 14, and in South Dakota the minimum age is 15.
Biden took steps to strengthen Delaware's sex offender registry soon after he took office -- and he's not amenable to legislation he believes would weaken it.
According to Biden and Deputy Attorney General Christina Showalter, keeping juveniles off the registry or easing restrictions would threaten public safety.
Grier Weeks, executive director of the National Association to Protect Children, says "It's not a black-and-white issue. Are there juveniles who commit sex crimes who do not belong on sex-offender registries? Of course," Weeks said.
A 2009 study published in the International Journal of Offender Therapy and Comparative Criminology tracked juvenile sex offenders from adolescence through age 26. Fewer than 2 percent were arrested for an adult sex offense by age 27.
Delaware's juvenile sex offender statute "is ruining the next generation," Pittman told a joint meeting of the state House and Senate judiciary committees on March 31. "Delaware has the youngest registrants in the country, and when you say in the country, it means in the world," Pittman said. "Having offenders who are younger than 14 on the registry is problematic."
Pittman said recent studies indicate that juvenile sex offenders have a recidivism rate of 5 percent to 14 percent -- substantially lower than the rates for other juvenile crimes, which range from 8 percent to 58 percent.
In 2006, Congress passed and President George W. Bush signed the Adam Walsh Act, which contains a provision known as SORNA: the Sex Offender Registration and Notification Act. That act requires juvenile offenders as young as 14 to register for life if convicted of more-serious sex offenses. States that do not comply will lose 10 percent of their funding from the federal Byrne Grant anti-crime program.
Delaware revised its law in an attempt to comply with the act, but in doing so it "cast an overly wide net that will tragically engulf nearly all adolescent sexual behaviors, including those prepubescent-like, exploratory behaviors committed largely out of curiosity," Pittman said in a prepared summary of her analysis of Delaware's law.
If the recent studies indicating that juvenile offenders are unlikely to commit another offense are true, Delaware's law could run counter to the 2002 state Supreme Court decision in Delaware v. Sapp.
In that case, the court advised the General Assembly to keep in mind that the registry statute must be related to the government's interest in protecting the public from the danger of recidivism of sex offenders.
In other words, statistics must back up any sex offender registry legislation effort. If the statistics aren't there, these sex offender laws will be killed. This is why you constantly see the falsely-cited high recidivism data in the media. We have posted the actual official USDOJ Recidivism studies multiple times on these blogs. How hard is it for the media to find this data if they truly have an interest in publishing factual information? Politicians and activists do a good job of espousing the false data much more loudly than we can publicize the true data.