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Branded for life

Children's advocates oppose Illinois law requiring juvenile sex offender registry

Brittany Agro & Ebonne Ruffins, Medill News Service, 
9 December 2006

While juveniles were responsible for at least 26 percent of all Cook County sex crimes in 2005, a law that requires juvenile offenders to register with local authorities lacks support among children's advocates.

In early December, the General Assembly could not muster enough votes to overturn a veto of a bill that would have allowed Juvenile Court judges to determine on a case-by-case basis whether juveniles
must register as sex offenders.

Gov. Rod R. Blagojevich vetoed the measure in April, but supporters remain hopeful that the registry law -- which treats juvenile sex offenders the same as adults -- will change.

"The current law requires (juvenile sex offenders) to register for 10 years or for life, nothing in between and no less than 10 years," said Elizabeth Clarke, president of the Juvenile Justice Initiative in Springfield. "If juveniles are found guilty of a sexual offense, they are required to automatically register on the adult registry when they hit 17."

Illinois is among 32 states that list juveniles on public sex offender registries. Other states require juvenile offenders to register once they reach age 18, and some never list them.

Proponents of the bill allowing judges to decide which juvenile sex offenders must register argue that young offenders should be treated as a special criminal class different from adults.

"Kids are developmentally and behaviorally different than adults," said Margaret Berglind, president and CEO of the Child Care Association of Illinois. "Often a child is already on a sex offender list before we can figure out what life has in store for him."

Andres Durbak, the director of safety and security for Chicago Public Schools, said administrators and teachers are trained to be sensitive to both child victims and juvenile offenders involved in sex crimes.

He said that effort is responsible for a 33 percent reduction in kid-on-kid sex crimes in Chicago Public Schools. For the 2005-2006 school year, 18 incidents were reported, a drop from the 27 incidents during the 2004-2005 school year.

"Research has shown that offenders today are yesterday's victims," Durbak said. "Scratch the surface, and you'll find a victim there." 

According to national studies on sexual aggression in youth, 20 percent to 55 percent of juvenile sex offenders experienced some form of sexual abuse themselves.

Dr. Mark Chaffin, a psychologist and professor at the University of Oklahoma, said not all juveniles who commit sex offenses will automatically become adult predators. He said those listed on sex offender registries may face a long future. 

"I don't think you have to speculate too much to conclude a lot of bad things will happen to these kids because they are on a public Internet registry," Chaffin said.

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