CHICAGO -- Requiring juveniles to register as sex offenders can hinder rehabilitation efforts and have significant, long-term negative consequences for young perpetrators who are statistically unlikely to re-offend, according to a study released Tuesday.
Among the most significant outcomes of the new 150-page report (embedded below) released by the Illinois Juvenile Justice Commission is a recommendation that the state end its "counterproductive" practice of requiring juvenile offenders to add their names to sex offender registries.
"Automatic, categorical registries do not protect public safety," George Timberlake, a retired chief circuit judge who chaired the commission, told the Associated Press. "There's no evidentiary basis that says they do and more importantly, they have very negative consequences in the effects they have on the offenders' life, and perhaps the victim's life."
Juvenile justice advocates have argued requiring minors to register as sex offenders is tantamount to handing them a "virtual life sentence" for crimes committed in their youth -- crimes encompassing serious offenses like rape but also minor ones like consensual sex, public nudity and public urination.
In 2013, Human Rights Watch issued an extensive report on the "irreparable" harm of placing minors on sex offender registries in the U.S.
"You've got to create a system that keeps the public safe but does not stigmatize a young person for the rest of their life," Mai Fernandez, a former prosecutor who is executive director of the National Center for Victims of Crime, told the AP last year.
“Many people assume that anyone listed on the sex offender registry must be a rapist or a pedophile,” Nicole Pittman, the Human Rights Watch report's author, said. “But most states spread the net much more widely.”
Finding housing and employment are among the biggest challenges for juvenile offenders on the general sex offenders registry, which makes information like recent photos, home address and place of work publicly available. Many ex-offenders report being harassed, excommunicated or otherwise targeted once neighbors find them on the registry. It can have tragic results in some cases.
“Suicide [among children placed on sex offender registries] is a possibility ... even predictable,” David S. Prescott, a social worker and expert on treatment strategies for youth sex offenders, told HRW.
Changes to the way adjudicated minors are treated with regard to sex offender registries stem from the Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act. Enacted by Congress in 2006, the act came in response to the high-profile abduction and murder of Adam Walsh, whose father, John Walsh, would later become a child safety advocate and host of the long-running show, "America's Most Wanted."
Among the most controversial parts of the act is Title 1, which created the Sex Offender Registration and Notification Act (SORNA). Under SORNA, juveniles, for the first time, were subject to the same registration requirements as convicted adult sex offenders. Previously, adjudicated minors were only required to register if they had been tried and convicted as adults.
Individual states have some flexibility in managing the registries, including requiring a minimum age for registration or setting a term limit on how long offenders must register.
Illinois is one of 20 states that puts juveniles on sex offender registries, regardless of the risk of reoffending, according to the U.S. Department of Justice's Center for Sex Offender Management. In 11 other states and Washington, D.C., juvenile offenders are not required to register unless they've been tried and convicted as adults.
Other states have scrutinized juvenile justice practices when it comes to sexual offenses, with jurisdictions in Ohio and Georgia, among others, ruling that their state's expansions on the national policy were unconstitutional.
On Monday, the Supreme Court declined to hear the case of a Virginia woman claiming the state's sex offender registry law is unconstitutional. The woman was convicted of a non-violent sexual offense in 1993 when she was a 24-year-old swimming instructor and had an affair with an under-16-year-old student. Fifteen years later when new state laws were passed, the woman was re-classified as a violent sexual offender.