Making Teens Optional on Sex-Offender List
Around the State
While Florida is tough -- and getting tougher -- on sex offenders, the U.S. Department of Justice is looking to undercut those efforts when it comes to teenagers.
A revised federal rule posted this month would let states decide whether to include teen offenders on their public registries. Current law requires all juveniles 14 and older convicted of sex crimes to register for the rest of their lives and for states to post that information publicly.
Florida currently has 113 teenagers listed on its sex-offender registry.
"Keeping track of sex offenders is a priority," according to a statement from the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, which administers the state's registry.
Ironically, just four days after the Justice Department floated its new, looser registry rules, Gov. Charlie Crist and FDLE Commissioner Gerald Bailey announced that Florida became the third state to fully implement the Adam Walsh Act.
The 2006 act, named after 8-year-old Adam Walsh, who was abducted and killed in Hollywood, Fla., in 1981, provides a comprehensive set of minimum standards for sex offender registration and notification nationally.
It specifically requires that juvenile sexual offenders register if adjudicated of certain crimes committed after July 1, 2007.
But with its proposed revision, the Justice Department weakens the Walsh standard by giving states the option to de-list minors. The public has 60 days to comment on the new rule.
State officials have not said whether they support or oppose the change.
FDLE spokesman Mike Morrison said his agency has implemented new tools and technologies in recent years to keep track of sex offenders. For instance, offenders are required to register in person more often.
"This translates to better accountability. Florida already has one of the lowest absconder rates in the nation. Our laws ensure law enforcement puts eyes on them as often as possible so we can confirm where they are residing," he said.
FDLE also has added vehicle information and e-mail and instant messaging addresses to its registry.
Additionally, Morrison said the agency has a community notification system that lets Floridians sign up to be informed if a registered sexual offender/predator moves into their neighborhood, and allows subscribers to track address changes of any offender in the system.
Meantime, the 2010 Legislature enacted two laws that would further tighten the reins on sex offenders.
House Bill 525 removes the statute of limitations for both criminal and civil liability of those convicted of sex abuse of children under 16.
House Bill 119 makes it illegal for sex criminals to be in certain areas frequented by children. The measure even bans offenders from dressing like Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, wearing clown costumes, handing out Halloween candy or entertaining at children's parties.
Both bills were signed by Gov. Charlie Crist.
But while Florida clamps down on its sex predators, the federal government is steadily lessening the consequences for teen offenders.
First, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that juveniles could not be given the death penalty. The high court last month extended that ban to say life sentences could not be imposed on teens convicted of non-lethal crimes.
The Justice Department's proposed easing of sex-registry rules is seen as another move toward protecting teenage offenders.
Maia Christensen, executive director of the Association for the Treatment of Sexual Abusers in Portland, Ore., said, "Juveniles are children. They're not fully developed. And their behavior does not always go into adulthood."
"It's important that we don't automatically say they're sex offenders."
But watering down the rules on registering minors could have a major impact, considering that there are more than 90,000 such offenders nationally.
Juveniles make up more than a third of those known by police to commit sexual offenses against other juveniles, according to a December 2009 report by the U.S. Department of Justice's Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention.
"Despite all the mythology out there, the fact is that they (registry-listed juvenile sex-offenders) earned it," says Cully Stimson, senior legal fellow at the Heritage Foundation in Washington, D.C. Only juveniles convicted of Tier 3 offenses -- forcible sex crimes -- are eligible for the sex registry.
"The campaign to de-list is based on the myth that the juvenile in question made just a minor, teeny little mistake. No, this is a sexual predator," Stimson said.
"Anyone who can read English knows that statutory rape is not included because, by definition, that is consensual," he added.
"Defining things down will not work out well in the long run. The offenders won't get the services they need, and they won't get the message. There is an ameliorative effect to punishment and rehabilitation," Stimson said.
By making the listing of teen sex offenders optional, the Justice Department would give states one more way to give young predators a pass.
Several states, including Florida, have created a legal loophole for teens by passing so-called Romeo & Juliet laws. These laws waive criminal charges against teenagers who have sex with minors as long as the age difference between the participants is no more than four years.
Using Florida's Romeo & Juliet law, a 17-year-old St. Petersburg youth who began having sex with his 15-year-old girlfriend was subsequently removed from the state's sex offender list.
Crist and Attorney General Bill McCollum declined to comment on the Justice Department's proposed rule change.
Contact Kenric Ward at firstname.lastname@example.org or at (772) 801-5341.