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Penalty widens for youth sex 'coercion'

Jill Taylor, Palm Beach Post, August 13, 2007

Fourteen-year-old boys who "coerce" sex from their girlfriends soon will join adult rapists and child molesters with their names, addresses and photographs on the state's Web site list of sex offenders.

And most will remain on the list for life, required to re-register every 90 days or face a new felony charge, because of a law the state legislature passed in the spring to comply with the federal Adam Walsh Child Protection Act.

"The legislation is pretty draconian," said Miami-Dade Chief Assistant Public Defender Carlos Martinez, who recently was named to the state's Blueprint Commission to reform the juvenile justice system. "Parents have no idea the impact this will have on their children."

Although state officials acknowledged that the Florida law may need some tweaking, they said they had no choice.

The Walsh act, which President Bush signed in July 2006, requires states to pass legislation by 2009 to help register and track sex offenders nationwide and make it hard for them to get their names removed from public lists. It includes not only juveniles convicted as adults in jury trials but also those found delinquent of certain sex crimes in juvenile court.

Juveniles were added to the federal law in part at the urging of Wisconsin lawmakers who promoted including younger offenders in response to a case in which a youth sexually assaulted an 8-year-old girl when he was 14 and was sent to a treatment program. Because he was a juvenile, his record didn't show up when he applied for a job as a camp counselor at age 18, and he later was sentenced to 25 years in prison for molesting children at the camp.

His original victim lobbied for laws to reveal the juvenile court records of sex offenders, and her cause became an element of the Walsh act.

But experts say the Florida law, which went into effect July 1, goes beyond what the federal law requires for juveniles by including some lewd and lascivious acts.

"The federal law is intended to really address the most dangerous people," Martinez said. "The Florida law doesn't do that. The outcome is going to be pretty horrific."

The experts also expressed concern that the law may have constitutional problems and could have detrimental effects on rehabilitating young sexual offenders, who often respond well to treatment.

Officials with the Florida Department of Juvenile Justice warned in a staff analysis of the legislation that it may face legal challenges, since children in juvenile court are not entitled to jury trials and would face a lifetime sex offender designation without due process.

Others who work with juvenile offenders are concerned that the term "coercion" could be open to varying interpretations by various judges and prosecutors, and the lack of attention to the unique problems of sexual abuse within a family troubles them.

They fear the law may discourage parents from seeking treatment for children who molest or fondle their siblings, because those offenders also would have to be named on the Florida Department of Law Enforcement Web site if found delinquent. Therapists are required to report any child abuse they learn about from victims or offenders.

"The child with the sexual behavior problems will not get help, and the victims may not get help either," said Jill Levenson, an assistant professor at Lynn University in Boca Raton who researches the effect of registration on sex offenders.

She and other experts fear the stigma of the sex offender label will steer offenders away from the educational and social environments that would help them become productive adult members of society.

"The truth is with juvenile sex offenders, the great majority are nonviolent and respond fairly well to treatment," Levenson said.

Treatment effective in many cases

That was the finding last year of a task force appointed to study juvenile sex offenders and their victims in Florida. It reported to the governor and legislature that juveniles have "an extremely low re-offense rate," citing studies from several programs for juveniles that showed less than 4 percent of those who completed the programs had a subsequent sex offense arrest.

The study also showed that from 40 percent to 80 percent of the juvenile offenders were victims of sexual molestation.

Of the nearly 1,000 juveniles screened from 1998 to 2005 to see if they qualified as sexually violent predators under the Jimmy Ryce Act, 34 were referred for possible civil commitment and only nine had been committed as of late 2005, according to the task force report.

Task force Chairman Mark Fontaine, who at that time was executive director of the Juvenile Justice Association, said the group recognized there are juvenile sexual predators who deserve a sex offender designation - typically those who are repeat offenders or have been involved in violent crimes.

Such cases are more likely to be handled in adult court. The juveniles charged in the alleged gang rape in Dunbar Village in West Palm Beach, for example, have been transferred to adult court.

But Fontaine said the confidentiality of juvenile court files is there because the law recognizes that young people sometimes act impulsively and recklessly, but those mistakes shouldn't be an indelible blot on their lives.

"That's why we created the juvenile justice system," he said.

So the task force strongly and repeatedly recommended against including juvenile offenders in the FDLE registry unless they were transferred to adult court.

The task force concluded: "Once labeled and registered as a sex offender, a juvenile's options in life, such as joining the military, attending college and location of residence will be substantially limited. Because of the high success rates of treatment, it is important to minimize the unintended consequences of labeling these youth or placing barriers to their successful reintegration into the community."

Indeed, existing Florida law already required youth sex offenders to register and be included on the FDLE Web site if their cases were transferred to adult court and they were convicted or entered a plea agreement.

But until now Florida law always has kept confidential those whose cases were handled in juvenile court.

Expert questions state's rush on law

Martinez, of the juvenile justice reform commission, questioned why the state legislature moved so quickly on the law without working out all the possible "unintended consequences" beforehand.

But state officials said few objections were raised during the legislative process, and federal grants to help pay for implementation and supporting programs may not be available to states that wait until the deadline to act.

Lawmakers did try to avoid including so-called Romeo and Juliet situations, where there is consensual sexual conduct between two juveniles, by adding a requirement that any fondling include "force or coercion" and direct genital contact rather than touching outside clothing. And they didn't want to put the sex offender label on a child who grabbed someone or exposed himself during horseplay.

Even so, Martinez, expects legal challenges as soon as names begin appearing on the FDLE site. But no one from FDLE or juvenile justice can predict exactly when that will occur or how many juveniles will qualify.

There is a Nov. 1 deadline to have the computer process for transferring the necessary information in place, but juvenile justice officials in each district have to review each file to determine if the youth meets the criteria spelled out in the law.

If the law had been in effect in the 2005-06 year, officials determined 53 youth statewide definitely would have qualified to be on the registry and 68 might have qualified if the courts had made the necessary findings, said Samadhi Jones, juvenile justice deputy communications director.

Juvenile justice workers also are worried about the 90-day re-registration requirement.

At a recent Juvenile Justice Council meeting in Martin County, Chief Probation Officer Dan Rodgers noted that probation officers already are juggling caseloads triple and quadruple what they should have. Making sure a 14-year-old who can't drive and has poor parental support gets to the local sheriff's office every three months will be an extra challenge.

Noting the felony charge that faces any juvenile who fails to register, Rodgers told the council: "This is a serious thing."

What the law says

Effective July 1, 2007, juveniles 14 or older who are found delinquent for committing, attempting, soliciting or conspiring to commit these crimes will have their name, photograph and address posted on the Florida Department of Law Enforcement sex offender Web site and a national sex offender database for at least 25 years and will be required to re-register every 90 days:

Sexual battery.
Lewd or lascivious battery on a person under 12 or where a court finds there was sexual activity by force or coercion, including bribes, threats of force or intimidation.
Lewd or lascivious molestation (touching) of a person under 12 involving unclothed genitals.
Lewd or lascivious molestation (touching) of a person 12 to 15 years old involving unclothed genitals and force or coercion.

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