More Kids on Sex Offender Registry

March 1, 2010 More Kids on Sex Offender Registry.

Every year, more teens are added to Ohio’s sex offender registry, slapped with labels that will follow them past their 18th birthday and mark them as potential threats to their neighbors. But if teen sex offenders are indeed dangerous, how come they’re being locked up far less often than in the past? The answer may be a 2008 law that was designed to crack down on sex offenders, but may have the opposite effect when it comes to juveniles.

The Adam Walsh Act requires anyone 16 or older who is convicted of a sex crime to be added to the state’s sex offender registry. As a result, some judges and prosecutors are changing charges to avoid registration requirements they say are too harsh to be applied uniformly to every juvenile. Usually, that means “sex” disappears from the sex crimes.

For example, a sexual imposition charge can turn into an assault because both deal with unwanted contact. Or a pandering obscenity allegation for “sexting” — sending lewd images of minors with a cell phone — can morph into a charge that punishes the teen for using a cell phone in a criminal act.

The law allows for judges to lower classification after a juvenile’s incarceration or probation is completed. So if a judge designates a teen a Tier I offender and orders him to complete six months of probation, the label can be removed a half-year later. If they’re still under 18 at that point, the teen successfully avoids inclusion on the online, publicly accessed registry.

A snapshot of the registry database in each of the last three Decembers shows that the ranks of Tier I offenders have grown significantly. In December 2007, the state attorney general’s office was watching 148 teens in that lesser designation. By Dec. 15, 2009, the state had 290 Tier I teens to monitor. The number of teens who committed more serious sex crimes has trended only slightly upward.

Richland County Assistant Prosecutor Bambi Couch Page, who handles many of the department’s sex crime cases, said there are cases where the consequences of giving a juvenile a sex offender label that lasts into adulthood might be the wrong thing to do. (this seems to be a clear acknowledgment that inclusion on a sex offender registry certainly does include a punishment component).

Michael, who also is president of the Ohio Association of Juvenile Court Judges, said the law, if applied to the letter, would cost good kids who exercised bad judgment a chance to fully realize their potential as productive citizens. (but it is perfectly acceptable to take away that chance from a person over the age of 18 after one offense ?).

The Adam Walsh Act was crafted with the best intentions, but may be creating a second set of victims, Wyman said. If teens aren’t a danger to others, she said, they shouldn’t be labeled as sex offenders well into adulthood.
(and if adults are not deemed to be of high risk to offend, they should not labeled for the remainder of their lives either).

Maggie Ostrowski, spokeswoman for State Sen. Bill Harris, R-Ashland, said the Walsh Act was designed to protect kids from repeat sex offenders (yet in many cases, it imposes life-long sentences of registration on first time offenders).

Michael said that laws crafted in the spirit of protecting our most vulnerable can go too far because of their near-universal appeal. Supporting sex offender legislation, or any law that purports to be tough on crime, rarely hurts re-election prospects, lawmakers said. “I’m not familiar with anyone ever losing an election because they were too tough on crime,” said Rep. Dan Dodd, D-Newark. “You’re not going to lose support by going too far … sometimes that does create bad law.”

Summary: Ohio is bypassing the Adam Walsh Act requirements with judges and prosecutors changing charges to avoid forcing juvenile registration.

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