States Get More Discretion to Register Juveniles on Sex Registries

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WASHINGTON — New federal guidelines aim to make it easier for states to show they are registering juveniles convicted of certain sex offenses.

The Department of Justice this week released final guidance that says states will have greater flexibility to show they are in compliance with the Sex Offender Registration and Notification Act (SORNA).

SORNA, part of the Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act, requires states to include on sex offender registries juveniles who are 14 or older and adjudicated delinquent for serious sex offenses. If states do not, they lose federal grant money. The law also includes registration requirements for adult sex offenders.

Under the new guidance, if a state is not in “exact conformity” with the law’s provisions, federal officials will consider other factors that show whether a state’s discretionary policies still meet the requirements.

For example, officials will consider how states:

  • prosecute juveniles as adults for sex crimes;
  • register juveniles adjudicated delinquent for sex crimes;
  • identify, track, monitor or manage adjudicated juveniles in the community; and
  • keep records of adjudicated juveniles as needed for public safety purposes.

“This expansion recognizes that jurisdictions may adopt myriad robust measures to protect the public from serious juvenile sex offenders, and will help to promote and facilitate jurisdictions' substantial implementation of all aspects of SORNA,” the guidance said.

Registering juveniles for sex offenses is a controversial practice, one that many advocates and researchers say is harmful to youth and counter to public safety. Of the comments submitted on the guidance before it was finalized, none supported a stricter interpretation of the law, and many pushed for Justice to go further or eliminate juvenile registration entirely.

[Related: Young Sex Offenders Can, Must Be Rehabilitated]

Most states are not in compliance with SORNA, and juvenile registration is often a sticking point for officials who doubt its efficacy, said Nicole Pittman, director of the Center on Youth Registration Reform at Impact Justice.

Since SORNA took effect, Justice has periodically loosened the juvenile registration requirements to encourage compliance. But the department can go only so far without running afoul of the requirements of the law, a situation officials noted in the guidance. Pittman said that points to the need for modification to the Adam Walsh Act.

“It’s really loud and clear this is as far as we can go,” she said.

In May, a subcommittee of the Federal Advisory Committee on Juvenile Justice, which makes proposals to Congress and the White House, recommended that all juveniles who were under 18 at the time they committed a sex offense should be exempt from all sex offender registration, community notification and residency restriction laws.

In comments, youth advocates and researchers also said they have concerns the guidelines will encourage state practices that run counter to reforms that recognize youth are different than adults.

A coalition including the Campaign for Youth Justice, the Juvenile Law Center and the National Juvenile Defender Center said in a comment letter that criteria that focuses on whether juveniles are charged as adults for certain offenses risks sending more minors to criminal court. They also raised concerns about whether states would loosen confidentiality protections.

“This is the opposite direction that your office and the nation are moving in juvenile justice and could have serious consequences for youth and communities,” they wrote.

Justice disagreed, saying in response to the comments that “these guidelines do not encourage prosecution of juveniles as adults.”

The guidelines took effect Monday.

More related articles:

Sexually Exploited Girls in Need of Services, Not Handcuffs

Juvenile Records Often Have Lifelong Consequences: Experts Say

Kentucky Supreme Court Reviewing Teen Sex Offender Case

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