Should teenagers who are convicted as juveniles of minor sex crimes be added to the national registry of sex offenders for life?
Young teens convicted of sex crimes behind the closed doors of juvenile court will now end up on the state's public registry of sex offenders.
A state law that went into effect July 1 will list teens as young as 14 on the same Web site as adults who are convicted pedophiles and sexual predators. The designation will follow them and their families as they enter schools, move to new communities and eventually apply for colleges, trade schools and jobs.
Some public defenders and legal experts describe the law as revolutionary because it makes public the actions of juvenile court. They say it may hinder rehabilitation of those who commit relatively minor offenses by publicly labeling them as sex offenders. Public defenders plan to challenge the law, saying it sentences juveniles as adults without allowing jury trials.
And some specialists in the field say parents, often the first to learn of teens' sex crimes, may be reluctant to seek help for their children if they will be labeled and their families' homes identified on the sex offender list.
"Their names, their home address, and other information are going to be there for the public to see," said Jan Abee, who is helping the Department of Juvenile Justice carry out the law. "That means a lot for their families, too, because they'll be living at the same address."
Florida legislators unanimously approved the measure to comply with the Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act and to qualify for millions of dollars in federal funding. The Adam Walsh Act, which went into effect last year, requires children 14 and older who engage in genital, anal or oral-genital contact with children younger than 12 to be included in community-notification laws, such as the predator list.
The intent of the federal law, according to state officials, was to add juveniles who use force or coercion while committing sex crimes to the state and national sex offender lists.
Issues arise when applying adult standards of force or coercion to situations involving juveniles, say juvenile law specialists. For example, is coercion or force involved if a teen coaxes another child to expose himself or to experiment by touching each other? The new state law also covers cases in which a teenager exposes himself or herself to younger children.
State Sen. Jeremy Ring, D-Margate, said he had few reservations voting for the law.
"If you're 15 years old, then you better have some idea of right and wrong," he said. "I don't have any problem with some kid that age who commits rape or some lewd act on a 10-year-old."
State Rep. Jack Seiler, D-Wilton Manors, agreed with Ring but said there are some gray areas.
"We don't want to put some juvenile who's having a bad day on the list for something stupid, some lewd prank," he said. "I understand that we have to deal with juveniles differently than we do adults in many cases. ... Depending on how this law is understood, we may have to revisit this in the next session."
Prosecutors, law enforcement officers and public defenders say they always have had discretion in filing and prosecuting juvenile court cases, and that will become even more important.
Parents and guardians may now think carefully before reporting unusual behavior to police, said Abee. If a child is placed on the registry, so is the address of his or her parents. They will be liable for having the child report to local authorities every three months, as sexual predators are required to do.
"There needs to be some kind of intense awareness campaign to let people, especially parents, know the implications of this new law," she said. For prosecutors, it's unclear how this law will affect their decisions to press charges.
"I don't think any prosecutor is going to base that decision on whether or not the name will go on a registry," said Mike Edmondson, spokesman for the Palm Beach County State Attorney's Office.
Said Willie Lawson, a veteran prosecutor in the Broward County State Attorney's juvenile unit: "It's just unclear what discretion we're going to have, what discretion a judge will have."
The only way a teen convicted of a sex crime in juvenile court can avoid being named to the sexual predator list is by proving the other child consented and was at least 14. In legal circles, these are called "Romeo and Juliet" cases.
Legislators worked to exclude these teens from the predators list, Ring said.
"I don't want some guy or girl involved in a romantic relationship on a public sex offender's list," he said. "That's not what it's there for."
Once on the registry, the child and his family would have to abide by state law and local ordinances that restrict pedophiles and predators from living near schools and playgrounds — a boundary set from 1,000 to 2,500 feet by governments in Broward and Palm Beach counties.
Current law prohibits registered sex offenders from entering schools, but the Florida Department of Law Enforcement is trying to negotiate an accommodation with educators. Registered sex offenders must check in with police every three months, cannot attend most colleges and are barred from professions involving children.
The only way off the registry is to petition the court, but that is allowed only after 25 years — the same period applied to adult offenders.
About 2,000 juveniles are convicted of sexual offenses in Florida every year, a figure that has held steady over the past five years even though the number of children ages 10 to 17 has increased. Overall, juveniles are responsible for half of child molestations and roughly one-fifth of all rapes in the state.
Most of the cases involve so-called "boundary" issues — simulating sexual activity or forcing children to strip — and "Romeo and Juliet" cases, say sexual abuse experts. They often are committed by children who need counseling but are not serial abusers.
Public defenders cite studies that say many children who act out sexually were abused. Studies of very young children with sexual behavior problems suggest 49 percent to 80 percent were victims of sexual abuse, according to the Association for Treatment of Sexual Abusers.
Juveniles, unlike adults, are much less likely to be repeat offenders, according to the Florida Department of Juvenile Justice and other groups. In Florida and nationally, fewer than half commit a second crime; some studies indicate the rate of reoffending may be as low as 15 percent.
"Juveniles are not adult offenders — there are all kinds of successful efforts at rehabilitation," said Gordon Weekes, an assistant public defender in Broward County.
Weekes and other public defenders plan to challenge the new law when the first case arises. One point of contention: that juveniles placed on the adult sex offender registry are sentenced as adults but denied a trial by jury. Juvenile court cases are heard by judges to protect the child's identify and offer the opportunity for rehabilitation.
Critics of the new law say Florida already responds to the most heinous juvenile sex crimes by charging the aggressors as adults. They refer to the recent case in Palm Beach County in which three juveniles, ages 14, 15 and 16, were indicted as adults on charges of raping a woman and forcing her son to have sex with her.
"These are atypical crimes ... which is why they get the attention," said Jill Levenson, a professor at Lynn University in Boca Raton and an expert on community notification laws. "But the fact is that a child who may be abused, who may have been inappropriately touching a younger sister, say, is now facing a lifetime on a sexual offender registry."
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