OP-ED: Teens and the Sex Offender Registry, No Good Outcomes for Anyone

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New-Timberlake-color-336x504-2Last week, I hailed a taxi in Washington, D C, and asked the driver to take me to the Keck Building for a meeting with a committee of the National Research Council. The cabby recognized the address and asked if I was a scientist. I explained that I am a retired judge and that applying science and research to juvenile court could make us all safer, save taxpayer dollars and improve the futures of kids in the justice system. He said, “That makes sense but just how can that happen?”

The day before, the Illinois Juvenile Justice Commission (IJJC), which I chair, released its nearly two-yearlong study entitled “Improving Illinois’ Response to Sexual Offenses Committed by Youth”. So, I used it as an example.  We found that the number of sexual offenders in our juvenile justice system is very small — 232 arrests in 2010 — and 50 percent of those kids were 14 years old or younger.

The offenses charged were the alleged result of a very wide range of behavior from inappropriate exposure to touching or fondling to sexual penetration. Furthermore, national and Illinois studies reveal that the vast majority of these youth have not acted in response to a deviant sexual arousal or a focused intent to harm others. The victims in the majority of these cases are family members or persons known to the youth.

I continued my “taxi-ride speech” by re-counting the study’s findings that these kids very rarely commit another sex offense and that individually structured treatment is extraordinarily effective. Finally, the study concluded that sex offender registries for juveniles do not increase public safety and often interfere with positive outcomes for both victims and offenders. The report recommends that Illinois’ categorical registry requirements of 10 years to life should be abolished.

The cabbie asked several pertinent questions, and I told him about adolescent brain development: that kids lack the ability to exercise impulse control, to think of consequences and follow the best course of action. Teenagers are extraordinarily subject to peer influence and genuinely cannot make moral judgments to dictate their behavior. They cannot assess risks, consider future consequences, evaluate rewards and punishments nor react to positive and negative feedback.

He said that he understood how the findings lead to the conclusion about registries. Perhaps because he was a black man in his 60s, he was in a better position than most in realizing that law and practice do not always create justice and public safety.

In the week prior to my D.C. taxi ride, I met with many interested parties to preview the IJJC’s report. While meeting with a former prosecutor, I explained that our report revealed that treatment is effective if it is based on adequate assessment of a youth’s risk of re-offending with a validated assessment tool such as JSOAP or ERASOR. The treatment should be community-based, family-focused evidence-informed and attentive to the needs of the victims and their families while promoting offender accountability. For those few high-risk kids, intensive, specialized and sometimes residential treatment should be available and utilized.

The report recommends training for all juvenile justice system stakeholders; developing adequate and informed standards for sex offender risk assessment; creating a qualification method for treatment professionals and establishing case-planning methods for all those court personnel who deal with youth who have sexually offended.

Finally, based upon low re-offending rates and victim and offender therapists’ agreement that sex offense stigma interferes with successfully treating their clients, the IJJC recommends removing young people from the state’s counter-productive sex offender registry.

That last recommendation caused the ex-prosecutor to comment and question. He understood the findings from his career in the justice system — the few sex offense cases in a prosecutor or judge’s career make a strong impression and they usually involve a very young offender in a family, peer or neighborhood situation. He had no knowledge of caseload numbers, recidivism rates or treatment effectiveness but was unwilling to abandon registration. As with many court professionals and the public, he believed that registries somehow make us safer.

The contention that registration can somehow prevent future sex crimes simply is not supported by evidence. On the contrary, we found that registries and their requirements can damage the futures of victims and offenders. If the principle of “Do No Harm” applies to the justice system, we must find common ground to protect public safety, exercise fiscal responsibility and create positive outcomes for victims and offenders.

My cab driver understands that. Now, we just have to convince our elected representatives.

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