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Juveniles face 25 years on Florida's sex-offender Web site

Sarah Lundy, Orlando Sentinel, January 6, 2008

Two are in seventh grade. Another is a sophomore in high school. Yet another, 18 years old, weighs 105 pounds and stands barely over 5 feet tall.

They are juvenile sex offenders -- and Florida has been handling their cases largely out of the public eye.

Now, a new state law requires posting their faces and addresses on the Internet along with adult rapists and pedophiles. Some legal experts say this goes against the purpose of juvenile court where rehabilitation and confidentiality are key. The courts restrict public access to the juveniles' legal files, but their identities and addresses are now available with a click of a mouse.

"It's contradicting years of juvenile-justice philosophy," said Jill Levenson, assistant professor at Lynn University in Boca Raton and the author of studies on sex-offender notification.

The law, which took effect in July, expands Florida's public sexual-offender registry to include teenagers who are found delinquent in juvenile court for a sexual activity by use of force or coercion.

So far, 14 kids, including four from Central Florida, are listed on Florida Department of Law Enforcement's site.

The Sunshine State isn't alone. Adding juveniles to the public sex-offender registries is part of a federal push made by the Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act of 2006. It requires states to implement public registries -- including juvenile sex offenders -- by July 2009 or lose out on federal criminal-justice money. Three other states recently passed laws to comply.

The law is named after Adam Walsh, a 6-year-old who was abducted from a Hollywood mall and killed in 1981.

"We recognized that adult sex offenders could start out as juvenile sex offenders. There is an obvious desire to stop them when they are recognized early," said Carolyn Atwell-Davis, director of legislative affairs for the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.

But balancing the public's right to know and a teenager's chance for a successful future have proved to be challenging.

In the past, juveniles convicted of sex offenses were not widely known because the cases remained shielded in juvenile court, where authorities did not clump their crimes with adults.

The problem with the new law, experts say, it that the sex-offender label is based on offense and not risk. With the right treatment, many young offenders don't end up offending again, said David Prescott, president of the Association for the Treatment of Sexual Abusers.

By publicizing their names and faces, "my concerns are that . . . recidivism among young people is so low that we may actually do more harm for many of them," said Prescott, who has treated sex offenders for 20 years.

From June 2006 to July 2007, nearly 650 juveniles were charged with sexual battery in Florida. Of those, 165 were in Central Florida, according to the Department of Juvenile Justice.

Prosecutors say the threat of registration is going to affect how cases play out in juvenile court.

"We're really still learning about it," said Assistant State Attorney Sid Savitz, who is the deputy bureau chief of the Orange-Osceola state attorney's juvenile division.

Settling cases with plea deals to avoid trials may become more difficult, Savitz said. Teens may opt to risk a trial instead of agreeing to register as a sex offender for at least 25 years.

"Once they are on the register, it's really, really difficult to undo that," he said.

Savitz said he looks at each juvenile case carefully. He may opt to charge a young offender with sexual battery -- which would qualify the juvenile for the registry -- but offer a plea deal to a lesser sex-offense charge.

"I want to avoid victims having to testify," he said.

Since July, 14 juveniles ranging in age from 14 to 18 have been listed among several thousand adult rapists and pedophiles. The criminal records for most of the teenagers list the sex offense as the only arrest. Their victims typically were younger and were known to the offenders.

The list of offenders nearly doubled in the past month.

A 17-year-old from Orlando was added Thursday. Orange County sheriff's investigators charged him with sexual battery after he impregnated a 27-year-old woman who is mentally disabled.

A 15-year-old from Orlando was put on the list in September for sexual battery. According to an arrest report, he had sexual contact with a mentally disabled girl. He is being held at the Orange Regional Juvenile Detention Center.

Two others -- ages 15 and 18 -- are at the Kissimmee Juvenile Correctional Facility, where teenage males who commit sexual offenses are treated. The other teenagers are in Lee, Okeechobee, Marion and Citrus counties.

When they are released from Department of Juvenile Justice custody, they'll be required to register their addresses, photos and e-mail and instant message names with their local sheriff's office four times a year, possibly the rest of their lives. If they failed to do so, they would be charged with a third-degree felony, which is punishable by up to five years in prison. If they follow the rules for 25 years, they can request to be taken off the list.

The Miami-Dade Public Defender's Office is poised to question the law when a case arises in its circuit.

Assistant Public Defender Billie Goldstein said she plans to challenge the constitutionality of the law and to fight for the right to a jury trial. In juvenile court, a judge -- not a jury -- decides a teenager's fate.

"It's such a serious consequence . . . juveniles should have the same trial protections, including a jury," she said.

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