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Risky Business: Registering Juvenile Sex Offenders

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The adult sex offender registry, which is maintained by the Department of Corrections, is offense-based. The adult sex offender registry, which is maintained by the Department of Corrections, is offense-based.
Picture of Tulsa County Assistant District Attorney Tara Britt. Picture of Tulsa County Assistant District Attorney Tara Britt.
Picture of State Representative Gus Blackwell, R-Lavern. Picture of State Representative Gus Blackwell, R-Lavern.
Studies show that juvenile sex offenders who go through a treatment program, which is required, are far less likely than adults to re-offend. Studies show that juvenile sex offenders who go through a treatment program, which is required, are far less likely than adults to re-offend.

Alex Cameron, Oklahoma Impact Team

OKLAHOMA CITY -- Over the three-year period that ended December 31, 2010, juveniles committed more than 1,300 sex crimes in Oklahoma. Nearly 500 of the offenses were of the most serious variety -- rape, rape by instrumentation, or forcible sodomy -- the sort of offenses that, under state law, would make the offender eligible to be required to register as a juvenile sex offender.

And yet, according to the Office of Juvenile Affairs, the agency responsible for maintaining the state's juvenile sex offender registry, there is currently just one person on the registry. In fact, over the ten years since the registry was created, OJA officials say, just ten juveniles have ever been required to register.

More numbers: Juvenile Crime in Oklahoma.

The notion of an offender registry containing just one name might seem less shocking, if Oklahoma's adult sex offender registry didn't contain several thousand names (6,916 at the time this was written). But, while the two registries do have one thing in common -- the crimes that qualify an offender for inclusion are essentially the same -- they are different in every other way, and comparing the two can be most misleading.

The adult sex offender registry, which is maintained by the Department of Corrections, is offense-based. That is, anyone 18 years of age or older who commits any of a specified list of sex offenses is automatically required to register as a sex offender upon release from custody. Depending on the seriousness of the crime (offenses range from level 1 through level 3), they may have to register for 15 years, 25 years, or life.

The adult registry is also public -- fully accessible online. By inputting one or more search criteria, you can pull up offenders, their photo(s), current address, and criminal history.

Mandatory registration allows police to keep tabs on criminals who have a penchant for re-offending, and to enforce residency restrictions. Publication of the registry allows citizens to know if they should be concerned about any of their neighbors.

How society treats juvenile offenders, though, is very different. In the juvenile justice system, more important than handing down punishment for a crime is offering a hand up -- providing treatment so that the juvenile won't repeat the behavior in the future. For this reason, except in the most depraved cases, the identity of a juvenile delinquent is withheld from public view.

It follows, then, that Oklahoma's juvenile sex offender registry is confidential -- only law enforcement may gain access to it.

The more fundamental difference between the adult and juvenile registries, though, is that the juvenile sex offender registry is risk-based, and not offense-based.

What this means, in the most basic sense, is that each case of a juvenile committing a crime that qualifies for possible registration must be considered individually.

In Oklahoma, this is an evaluation process that involves as many as three distinct steps.

First, the local District Attorney would have to make a determination that the juvenile in question -- even after undergoing treatment -- still poses a significant threat of re-offending. Under such circumstances, the D.A. would file an application to have the court require the juvenile to register as a sex offender, upon release from custody.

This application would trigger a second step -- an evaluation of the offender by a panel of two juvenile mental health professionals. These experts would write a report, containing a recommendation for or against registration, which they would then submit to the court.

It would then fall to the presiding juvenile court judge to decide -- the third and final step -- whether to accept or deny the D.A.'s application, based on the panel's recommendation.

It's a process that rarely happens.

"There's not been one application, since I've been here," said Oklahoma County Juvenile Court Judge Richard Kirby, who's been on the bench since early 2007.

In Tulsa County, Assistant District Attorney Tara Britt is in charge of the juvenile division. She says she has actually applied twice to have an offender put on the juvenile registry.

The result? "The court denied it," Britt stated flatly.

Dr. Mark Chaffin, a professor in the department of pediatrics at the University of Oklahoma's Health Sciences Center and an expert on child sexual abuse, says the fact that there's just one juvenile currently required to register is, in his estimation, proof that the system is working as designed.

"Typically, in Oklahoma, youth are not released from these facilities until there's some general sense that their risk has diminished or until they age out," Dr. Chaffin explained, "so it's really not surprising to me that we would have so few youth on the registry in Oklahoma."

The lack of juvenile offenders on the registry is surprising, however, to State Representative Gus Blackwell.

"Definitely," said Blackwell, R-Lavern, "there has to be more than one person on it."

During the past legislative session, Rep. Blackwell introduced legislation intended to bring Oklahoma into full compliance with the federal Adam Walsh Act, a measure signed into law by President George W. Bush in 2006 creating a national sex offender registry and including provisions for the registration of juvenile sex offenders, as well. The Act requires that states implement juvenile registration parameters similar to those for adults -- in other words, automatic registration, based on the offense and not based on perceived risk.

Blackwell's bill, HB 1350, would convert Oklahoma's juvenile registry from risk-based to offense-based; the registry would, however, remain accessible only to police. The bill passed the House, but failed in committee in the Senate. Still, Rep. Blackwell is hopeful the bill can be revived next year. His primary motivation, he says, is to capture $500,000 in annual Byrne grant funding that the state is missing out on currently because it is only partially compliant with the Walsh Act.

But the panhandle Republican also feels there are too many juvenile sex offenders who aren't being adequately watched, and creating a more robust registry would change that.

"This puts a tool in the hand of law enforcement to protect our citizens," Blackwell told us.

Whether law enforcement will actually use the tool, however, could be debated.

In the ten years that Oklahoma has had a juvenile sex offender registry, the Office of Juvenile Affairs says, not once has a law enforcement agency asked to see it.

For proponents of the current system, the issue of greater concern is the idea that juvenile sex offenders should be treated the same as adults, at least when it comes to requiring them register with the government. Experts, like Dr. Chaffin, couldn't be more emphatic in stating that juvenile sex offenders are very different from adult sex offenders.

Read more about Juvenile Sex Offenders

"They're not simply younger versions of adult sex offenders," said Dr. Chaffin, "nor do most of them age into becoming adult sex offenders."

Chaffin and others say, to begin with, most juveniles who commit sex crimes aren't motivated in the same way that adults are.

"They can be adolescents who are acting out of poor judgment, out of impulsivity, out of sexual curiosity," noted Chaffin.

"They rarely eroticize aggression," added Ass't D.A. Britt. "Very few fit the criteria for being a predator."

Studies also show that juvenile sex offenders who go through a treatment program, which is required, are far less likely than adults to re-offend.

"The future sex crime rate of most of these youth is quite low," said Dr. Chaffin, "and, in many cases, is no higher than that of non-sexual delinquents."

"From what I understand," Judge Kirby recalled, "it's between four and fifteen percent recidivism rates for juvenile sex offenders, whereas, for adult sex offenders, it's up to fifty percent."

The best way to protect the public, juvenile experts say, isn't to expand the juvenile sex offender registry, but to make sure juvenile sex offenders continue to have treatment options. They worry that forcing more juveniles to register could alienate them and jeopardize their chance to reform.

Dr. Chaffin recommends parents with questions about juvenile sex predators and protecting their kids visit this web site for the National Child Traumatic Stress Network.

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