By Clay Carey
State lawmakers may create a new online registry that would publicize the names and addresses of teenagers who commit violent sex crimes.
Supporters say it gives parents another layer of protection from predators who target children, but opponents say putting children on a public sex offender registry could stigmatize them and discourage them from seeking treatment. Mental health experts worry that it could put the teens on a humiliating path, leading them to commit more crime.
Some teen sex offenders could remain on the registry for 25 years.
So be it, says a Tennessee mother whose 5-year-old son was raped by his teenage babysitter in 2008.
"It's dangerous. If you don't know, how can you protect your kids from it?" said the 28-year-old Crossville, Tenn., woman. Her name is withheld because The Tennessean does not identify victims of sex crimes.
"Most parents aren't going to tell their neighbors, or the church or the people at school" their son or daughter is a sex offender, she said.
Her son's 15-year-old assailant was ordered into treatment by a juvenile judge.
That's the right answer, counselors say.
"As a youth, we can still step in and help them with those behaviors," said Rachel Freeman, vice president of clinical services with the Sexual Assault Center of Nashville. She worries that a registry would make people less likely to report sex crimes committed by young friends and family members.
Tennessee and other states are required to have juvenile offenders on sex crime registries if they want to keep receiving millions of dollars in federal funding for law enforcement. For the most part, Tennessee is in compliance with the federal standards. But adding juveniles to a public registry has been a sticking point. The state stands to lose $5 million if it doesn't do it.
"This is the part (of the federal sex crime package) that bothers a lot of people. They think juveniles deserve another chance," said state Rep. Debra Maggart (Email), the Hendersonville Republican sponsoring the legislation.
"I contend that if you have raped a child, you don't deserve another chance. The public deserves to be aware of you," she said. "I think the public has the right to know if a 16-year-old is a violent rapist."
The proposed bill would require teens between the ages of 14 and 18 to be added to the registry if convicted of serious sex crimes, including rape, aggravated rape, rape of a child or sexual battery — a sexual assault that does not include penetration.
The law would allow teen sex offenders to ask a judge to remove them from the registry within a year of their 19th birthday, and once every five years after that. Teens would cycle off the registry after 25 years.
State officials could not say how many juveniles would have to register under the new law. According to the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation, 847 juveniles in Tennessee were charged with sex crimes in 2008. Many of them were charged with less serious crimes that wouldn't land them on the registry.
Some states — including Florida, Louisiana and Missouri — have juvenile sex offender registries in place.
Sides debate the need
State Rep. Mike Stewart (Email), D-Nashville, says the juvenile registry is not necessary.
He said current law allows juveniles who are violent sex offenders to be transferred to criminal court and tried as adults. If convicted, they can be added to the state's adult sex offender registry.
"We don't need a sex offender registry for juveniles, most of whom are successfully treated and do not, after treatment, continue to be a threat to society," he said. "If the experts are telling us this is a bad idea, we should heed their advice."
Publicizing their names and addresses also can open their families up to retribution and vigilantism, opponents said.
"In the interest of public safety, adding juveniles to public registries is detrimental," said Sarah Bryer, director of the nonprofit National Juvenile Justice Network. In February, she gave testimony against the bill before the Maryland state legislature. She said studies have shown that most juveniles who commit sex offenses are "acting out." That makes them less likely to commit further sex crimes, Bryer said.
"They're acting inappropriately. I'm not making any excuses for that," Bryer said. "What you are doing (by putting them on a registry) is marring them for life. You are impeding their ability, in many ways, to lead a normal life."
Jim Reams, the president-elect of the National District Attorneys Association, finds that argument hollow.
"When you have a crime of that nature, I think the public not only wants that information but would also be surprised that someone is trying to withhold that from them," Reams said. "It's not society stigmatizing them. It's their actions that stigmatize them.''
The mother of one teen who was charged with molesting a child thinks the registry would have only served to further derail her son's life.
The 53-year-old woman said her ex-husband sexually abused her and her children — including the son, who at age 15 molested his sister.
"He was a child," the mother said. "He saw the adults in his life being the way they were … his sense of right and wrong were all screwed up."
After the molestation was discovered, her son received court-ordered therapy. Now in his mid-20s, he is serving in the United States military.
His mother worries that he might have become an adult predator had he been publicly labeled as a sex offender,
"Shame leads you down a bad road," the Williamson County mother said.
"They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety." - Benjamin Franklin