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Federal sex offender registry rules would create a curious exception to the juvenile justice secrecy model

From the Summer 2009 issue of The News Media & The Law, page 7. By Caitlin Dickson The idea that…

From the Summer 2009 issue of The News Media & The Law, page 7.

By Caitlin Dickson

The idea that confidentiality is key to a delinquent child’s rehabilitation may be undergoing scrutiny, but it’s hardly been abandoned altogether. Many states continue to maintain, through laws all but shuttering their juvenile justice systems, that the child’s interest in avoiding a stigma readily outweighs the public’s interest in oversight.

But a federal sex-offender registry law that, among other things, requires children as young as 14 who are convicted of sex offenses to be named on a public registry has undermined that premise. If implemented as scheduled in the next year, the Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act would force those states that promote secrecy in the name of rehabilitation to also place teenagers on one of the government’s most stigmatizing lists.

The act, which Congress passed in 2006 and which applies to all sex offenders, would require states to categorize offenders into tiers that determine how long they must stay on the registry. Anyone who commits a certain degree of crime, including a teenager, could be placed in the third tier, the most extreme, requiring him or her to register for life.

The Adam Walsh Act originally gave states three years to amend their sex offender registry laws to comply with the new provisions, or risk losing federal funds. But Attorney General Eric Holder granted the states a one-year extension this summer, when it became clear not a single state was ready to comply with the broad mandates of the act. (Thirty-two states already require children adjudicated for sex crimes in juvenile court to register as sex offenders, according to the federal Center for Sex Offender Management, but they are still not ready to meet the other requirements of the law.)

Some sex abuse and juvenile justice experts oppose the law more broadly, saying that it could make recidivists out of children who would otherwise have offended once, and that it will derail efforts to boost reporting and prevention of sex crimes.

For instance, the Association for the Treatment of Sexual Abusers, a non-profit research group, wrote a letter to the U.S. Department of Justice in 2007 predicting that the severity of the punishment would make parents even more reluctant to report or seek help for a child’s sexual behavior problems. Research shows that children generally respond better to treatment for sex offenses than adults do, said Alisa Klein, a public policy consultant for the group, whereas “the public shaming that comes with public notification is much more likely to increase their likelihood” of re-offending.

“The purpose of juvenile court is really to give (children) hope,” said George Kita, a juvenile crimes attorney in Los Angeles. The stigma of being named on the sex offender registry can result in “a lot of kids who are just going to give up.”

Typically, judges will carefully consider shuttering portions of sex offense cases involving juveniles — as witnesses, victims or even as suspects. That government would then see fit to turn such sensitive juvenile cases into the most public of punishments seems to have given the law’s strongest proponents pause.

Nicole Pittman, of the Defender Association in Philadelphia, has been working with Congress to push back the implementation of the law to allow a review of its implications for juveniles.

“I think everybody just wants to make sure we get it right, including the Department of Justice,” Pittman said. “It was a bill that was passed in five minutes and affects the lives of hundreds of thousands of people, juveniles included.”