Liberty and Justice News

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.

Liberty and Justice News

Juvenile Sex Offender Bill Debated

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.

Press Releases

Rep. Maggart and Sen. Black Want Violent Juveniles on Sex Offender Registry

Press Release from State Representative Debra Maggart (R-Hendersonville) and Senator Diane Black (R-Gallatin), Dec. 7, 2009:

NASHVILLE – Rep. Maggart and Sen. Black will push for passage of legislation in January to place violent juvenile offenders on Tennessee’s Sex Offender Registry as required under the federal Adam Walsh Act. The legislators introduced legislation today to place offenders between the ages of 14 and 18 years of age on the Registry.

“We are trying to protect children who are victims of this crime,” said Rep. Maggart. “The safety of children overrides concerns regarding information being available about the juvenile who must register as a result of being convicted of this violent crime. We are talking about rape, aggravated rape, aggravated sexual battery, rape of a child and aggravated rape of a child. These are serious adult crimes committed by a juvenile that most commonly occur with very young victims who must be protected.”

The adoption of this legislation would put Tennessee into compliance with the requirements for juveniles to be placed on state’s Sex Offender Registries under the Adam Walsh Act which was scheduled to go into effect in 2009. Tennessee was awarded over $50 million in Byrne Grant funding last year, 10 percent of which could be in jeopardy unless the state adheres to these requirements.

However, in June U.S. Attorney General Anthony Holder signed a one year agreement to extend the deadline for states to comply with the Sex Offender Registration and Notification Act. Only Ohio has complied with the law thus far.

“Tennessee has made very good progress at protecting children against child sexual predators, but we have still have a hurdle to overcome by placing these violent juvenile offenders age 14 and older on the Registry,” said Black.

“Although the risk of repeating the crime is not quite as high as adult sex offenders, it still presents enough of a threat to require placing these offenders on the Registry,” she continued. “We would like to believe that juveniles could not commit these types of horrible crimes. However, the fact remains that they do and children must be protected.”

“When there is this threat to the community, parents should have the right to know that the perpetrator has this history of sexual violence against children,” added Maggart. “Whether or not the perpetrator is 17 or 24 years old, child sexual offenders can be dangerous to children in the community and should be placed on the Registry as required by the Walsh Act. Hopefully, we will pass this legislation in the 2010 legislative session.”