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Advocates say juveniles should be kept off sex offender lists

Mansfield News Journal, January 21, 2008

CLEVELAND -- Advocates for juveniles who have committed sex crimes are challenging a new state law that increases the length of time convicted sex offenders must register their names and addresses with law enforcement agencies.

The law, which went into effect January 1, 2008, changes the number of classifications for sex offenders from eight to three, increasing the number of felons considered sexual predators and requiring those considered the worst to register for life.

But advocates say juveniles have low recidivism rates and should not be required to register, at times meaning their photos will be posted on the Internet.

"About 2,500 young people could be affected by the reclassification system", said Amy Borror, spokeswoman for the Ohio public defender's office.

The office has asked judges to grant temporary orders to keep juveniles being held by the Ohio Department of Youth Services from having their information placed on Internet registries. The office also offers to help locked up youth file motions seeking to prevent reclassifications.

She said some counties say registration is a civil penalty, not a criminal one, and are refusing to appoint lawyers for those fighting reclassification.

"It's a mess," Borror said. "Not only are different counties doing different things but different judges in the same county are doing different things."

Hundreds of letters have been sent to government offices by child advocates and others to express concerns about the law.

In some cases, judges are listening to the arguments. Cuyahoga County Juvenile Judge Kristin Sweeney, for example, granted a temporary order preventing at least one youngster from being placed on a registry.

Requiring juveniles to register could cause young people a host of problems, including preventing foster or adoptive parents from taking them in because they don't want their addresses listed on sex offender registries, said Ken Boris, who oversees the sex abuse unit at the Cuyahoga County Children and Family Services.

"This is a little bit of a political football that nobody wants to appear soft on crime, but it's going to be hard to include juveniles," he said.

Any lifetime penalty could deter a young person from getting treatment or reforming, Boris said. And the law may discourage sex offenders from making guilty pleas, requiring more young sex abuse victims to testify at trials, he said.

The Legislature passed the law last year to comply with a federal one that requires states to increase registration requirements by 2009 or lose some federal funding. The federal law is named after Adam Walsh, a 6-year-old Florida boy abducted and killed in 1981.

Besides increasing the length of required registrations, the law requires county sheriffs to notify community members about where more offenders live, and the Buckeye State Sheriff's Association says it will increase sheriffs' workloads by 60 percent.

The public defender's office, the American Civil Liberties Union and the Ohio Justice and Policy also oppose the law because it applies retroactively, requiring those convicted of sex crimes before the law went into effect to register for lengthier periods. The Ohio Supreme Court rejected their challenge.

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