A bill to add juveniles convicted of sex crimes to adult sex offender registry rolls could come up for a committee vote this week.
House lawmakers heard more than three hours of testimony last Tuesday on a piece of legislation introduced by Rep. Debra Maggart, R-Hendersonville, who says it is necessary both to protect the public as well as line Tennessee up to receive a bigger chunk of federal law enforcement subsidies.
The bill would apply to offenders between the ages of 14 and 18 who are convicted of aggravated rape, rape, aggravated sexual battery, aggravated rape of a child, rape of a child if the victim is at least four years younger than the offender, or attempt to commit any of those crimes.
A juvenile would be placed on the registry after their second offense. Those who mental health officials deem to be at “high risk” to re-offend would be added to the registry after their first offense. Offenders would be on the registry for 25 years.
“Frankly, I don’t care if the rapist living next door is 51-years-old or 15-years-old – I think I have a right to know where he is,” said Rep. Henry Fincher, D-Cookville, who is a co-sponsor of the bill.
Testifying in favor of the measure, Sumner County District Attorney General Ray Whitley declared that “knowledge is power,” and said the bill ultimately serves the purpose of giving parents a better ability to protect their children from attack by sexual predators, regardless of the offender’s age.
“Do you want to place emphasis on protecting the juvenile offenders, or do you want to place emphasis on juvenile victims – the little six-year-old, the little four-year-old whose parents might not have known that there is a violent sex offender living next door or going to church with them?” said the prosecutor. “Who do you want to protect?”
Opponents of the bill say it goes too far, and that it basically crosses a line at which giving a lasting stigma to a youthful violent sex offender becomes more risky to the community than not allowing the public immediate access to juveniles convicted of the crimes.
“For most of these kids, this is a life sentence,” said Davidson County Juvenile Court Judge Carlton Lewis. Adding them to sex offender rolls would result in the juveniles being “branded for life,” he said.
Another judge said juvenile offenders should not be treated the same as adult offenders.
“If we want to treat sex offenders like we treat adult sex offenders, let’s adjudicate it all in Sessions Court and Criminal Court, said Knox County Juvenile Court Judge Tim Irwin. “That’s what Juvenile Court is about. Juvenile Court, sometimes, is about taking chances.”
Supporters of the legislation, like one woman who testified that her 5-year-old son was molested, said public identification of sex offenders is a necessity, even if the offenders are juveniles. She also said she would check the registry to make sure her son was not around juveniles who have had a history of sexual offenses.
One mother of a juvenile sex offender said she too supports a registry. Not only would it make neighborhoods and communities safer, but it’d also help protect offenders liker her son “from his own self and his own actions,” she said.
Ultimately, developing a juvenile registry might lead to fewer cases being reported, said Trudy Hughes of the Blount County Child Advocacy Center.
“In 90 to 95 percent of these cases, there is a knowing and trusting relationship between the parties involved,” she said. “That often impacts reporting already.”
Dr. Bill Murphy, a psychiatrist who treats juvenile sex offenders in Memphis, said “most of the research would say” establishing a registry would be ineffective in protecting the community, he said.
Murphy added that it would also be difficult for law enforcement and probation officers to keep up with those on the registry because they are already stretched thin just keeping tabs on adult offenders.
Lawmakers on the panel say they’re interested in trying to balance concern for public safety and the effects the law could have on juvenile offenders.
“I think I’m struggling like most other people,” said Rep. Judd Matheny, R-Tullahoma. “I think these egregious offenses have got to be put on some type of registry where the public has to be made aware of them. But at the same time, I think we’re painting too many of our citizens into a corner one way or another and condemning them to a life that’s never going to be productive.”
Matheny suggested the cases be handled in juvenile court, then have a different judge review the case and the progress the teen has made in therapy 90 days before the teen’s 18th birthday. That final judge would decide if the teen belongs on the registry.
Another suggestion was to have mental health professionals assess and decide whether the teen belongs on the registry. A third suggestion in committee would make the registry only available to law enforcement.
A companion bill in the Senate has yet to be taken up by that chamber’s Judiciary Committee.