OpEd: Teens and the Sex Offender Registry – No Good Outcomes for Anyone

Screenshot from the report released Tuesday

This column originally appeared on partner site JJIE.org

Last 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?”

Ret. Judge Timberlake, chair of the Illinois Juvenile Justice Commission
Ret. Judge Timberlake, chair of the Illinois Juvenile Justice Commission

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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1 comment

  1. Brian

    First, let’s be real – Illinois enacted flawed legislation and the juvenile sex offender registration requirements need to be repealed. In passing these draconian laws, lawmakers were probably so driven by irrational fear driven by the ‘moral panic’ surrounding sex offenders that they drafted very poor legislation under the inaccurate belief that all juveniles who were adjudicated delinquent of a sexual offense were young ‘predators to be’ (i.e., the unfounded myth that juvenile sex offenders typically grow into adult sex offenders, which the Commission’s report clearly highlighted is not the case).
    What the lawmakers forgot in their legislative frenzy requiring juvenile sex offenders to register is that, in Illinois, in an attempt to protect youth from the consequences of early sexual activity, there had been laws enacted which made youth under 17 who engaged in consensual sexual activity delinquent of a “sex crime” in an attempt to protect the youth from the consequences of engaging in sex with their peers at an early age. These laws were passed, I presume, to try to protect youth, but the laws on the books which clearly ended up with juveniles found delinquent of “sex crimes” for actions which involved no true victim, was apparently forgotten in the legislative frenzy over the perceived (and widely inaccurate) belief that nearly all juvenile sex offenders were potentially dangerous youth who society needed to be protected from.
    It’s time that the citizens of Illinois demand that legislators own up to the mistakes made in previous legislative sessions. The citizens of Illinois sgould demand that legislators take action and revise the law in such a way that the approximately 2,600 juvenile sex offenders currently on the Illinois sex offender registry are taken off the registry and are no longer required to register. They should further demand that additional legislation be passed clearly stating that these juvenile sex offenders are no longer be subject to the collateral consequences and legal requirements that are currently imposed on registered adult sex offenders in the state. They should also demand that legislative action be taken to implement the recommendations made by the Commission. Finally, new rules should be enacted regarding the legislative process in Illinois to prevent such poorly thought out legislation from ever being enacted again.

    Brian E. Oliver, PhD, MATS
    Criminologist, Researcher, Consultant