Senate Panel Probing Juvenile Sex-Offender Bill

A state Senate committee is hoping to put the final touches next week on a requirement to add juveniles convicted of certain sex crimes to Tennessee’s adult sex-offender registry.

Sen. Diane Black, a Gallatin Republican, is sponsoring the bill — which aims at making the state hew to a 2006 federal mandate handed down by the Republican-controlled Congress and President Bush — and told members of the Senate Judiciary Committee that she’d like to only add the most violent teen offenders to the registry.

Those targeted include 14 to 18-year-olds convicted of rape, rape of a child under 13 — if there is more than a four-year age difference between the offender and the victim — as well as aggravated rape of a child three years old or younger and aggravated sexual battery in cases where force or coercion with a weapon was involved in the crime.

Juvenile offenders added to the registry would have to be judged by a mental health professional as being at a “high risk” of re-offending.

Under Black’s version of the bill, offenders would be listed on the registry for 25 years. If an offender stays within substantial compliance with any requirements or restrictions placed on them by the court system, the individual can ask to be removed from the list when they turn 19. Those not in full compliance would have to wait an extra five years before requesting to be taken off the registry.

Tennessee’s online sex offender registry receives about 10,000 visits per day, said Black, quoting the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation. More than 32 states have some type of juvenile sex offender registry in place, she said.

“Admittedly, it is an extremely sensitive issue,” said Black. “It would give an opportunity for parents and other caregivers of small children to make sure that, as they have their children exposed to these offenders, that they are given knowledge that these are offenders that are the most serious offenders and have a high risk of re-offending.”

“The intent is to protect the innocent children,” she continued. “When a child is perpetrated, we know the kinds of results of what will happen with that child for the rest of their life. We are protecting the innocent. The purpose of this is not to punish the offender because there is nothing in (the bill) that will prevent them from getting rehabilitation. We want them to get rehabilitation.”

Several senators on the panel expressed reservations about the bill.

“Not all of us sit around and peruse registries all the time, I promise you,” Memphis Democrat Beverly Marrero told Sumner County District Attorney Ray Whitley, who was testifying in favor of the bill. “It looks like you’re trying to set up people for a sort of a paranoia where people are going out everyday and going on the internet and trying to find out how many sex offenders are in their neighborhood and if they’re walking down their street.”

If people are not obsessing with the adult sex offender registry, they won’t be when the registry adds teen sex offenders, Whitley said.

Sen. Doug Jackson, D-Dickson, said he supports the new registry but is worried about some of the particulars.

“I see cases where this is not serving the public’s interest, but it’s hurting the child,” he said. “There’s no discretion with the court…and that’s the hallmark of juvenile court. This is tying the judge’s hands…to come up with the appropriate remedy.”

The bill, Jackson said, might create a system that “sweeps all of the children in rather than weigh in some mitigating factors.”

Black said only around one percent of juvenile sex offenses covered by the bill are now sent to adult court.

“These juvenile judges are not sending these most serious offenses…to the adult court,” she said.

A number of people who testified about the legislation repeated much of what they said earlier this legislative session when House committees were considering the change in law. Legislation in the House has been advancing, but it was recently put on hold until the budget situation is resolved.

Some senators who support the bill voiced concerns Thursday about the measure’s particulars.

Sen. Dewayne Bunch, R-Cleveland, worried that a mental health professional’s report to a judge could override the discretion of that judge. Relying on a mental health professionals’ decision takes power away from judges, he said, adding that a decision as to whether a juvenile ends up on the registry become somewhat “predetermined.”

He also questioned whether an offender could appeal the finding of the mental health professional and whether a lawyer representing an offender would have to prioritize fighting the alleged crime against the risk of being a re-offender.

“Should we have a separate and distinct hearing about whether the person is high risk?” asked Bunch.

The committee later agreed to amendments by Sen. Brian Kelsey, R-Germantown, designed to put more of the risk-determination decision-making authority back in the hands of judges.

Bunch also criticized the bill’s definition of “mental health professional,” because it included such professions as a licensed clinical social worker and a licensed marriage and family therapist.

About five percent of minors in the 14-18 age-range would be affected by the legislation, Black said — though she also acknowledged those estimates might be low.

The bill is scheduled to come up for more discussion before the Judiciary committee Wednesday.