Because children lack the same life experience as adults and because their brains have not yet fully developed, they are typically treated differently than adults in the criminal justice system. While juveniles can be tried as adults depending on the nature of their criminal charge, courts generally take a defendant’s age into account when determining penalties. However, the state of Illinois takes a hard line when it comes to juveniles who have allegedly committed sex offenses, and any minor charged with a sex crime is forced to register as a sex offender, often for life.
Illinois is in the minority when it comes to this harsh treatment of juvenile offenders. We are one of only 20 states that force any juvenile convicted of a sexual offense, regardless of its nature, to register as a sex offender (19 states require some juvenile offenders to register but give courts more flexibility in determining the sentence, and 11 states plus the District of Columbia do not require juveniles to register as sex offenders unless they have been tried as adults).
Our state is also strict when it comes to determining how long juveniles must remain on the sex offender registry. Illinois divides the vast majority of sexual offenses into four broad categories—criminal sexual abuse, aggravated criminal sexual abuse, criminal sexual assault, and aggravated criminal sexual assault—and of those four categories, three require juveniles to register as a sex offender for life. Criminal sexual abuse, which generally includes touching and fondling, is the only category that does not require life-time registration, but it still requires juveniles to register for 10 years. These penalties seem particularly harsh when you take into account that more than half of juveniles charged with a sexual offense in Illinois are under the age of 14.
This judicial response to juvenile sexual offenses does more harm than good, according to a recent report from the Illinois Juvenile Justice Commission. They found that sex offender registration is unproductive as the majority of juveniles charged with a sexual crime are not repeat offenders, and that forcing youths to register as sex offenders also interferes with other forms of treatment that are likely to be more effective.
The Detrimental Effects of Registering as a Sex Offender
Registering as a sex offender can have a huge impact on anybody’s life, but it is particularly detrimental for juveniles, who may be punished for the rest of their lives for a mistake that they made when they were too young to have developed good decision-making skills. First of all, being forced to register as a juvenile sex offender affects where you can live, go to school, and work as an adult. Those who are on the registry may find that their career options are limited due to the fact that most employers will run a criminal background check. If they later have their own children, they may also be unable to attend those children’s extracurricular events or even pick them up from school.
On top of all that, juveniles on the registry must deal with the lifelong stigma of being branded a sex offender. Research has shown that because a registered sex offender’s personal information is available to view in a public online registry, people on the registry are often targets for harassment and violence.
Alternatives to Sex Offender Registry for Juvenile Offenders
In their report, the Illinois Juvenile Justice Commission concludes that requiring juveniles to register as sex offenders regardless of risk “does not enhance public safety” and that “applying these strategies can actually undermine rehabilitation and the long-term wellbeing of victims, families, youth, and communities.” Providing community-based rehabilitation that is tailored to the individual and the offense is a much more effective form of rehabilitation, and the Commission is pushing for a change in state laws that would promote this type of individualized rehabilitation and allow for more flexibility in the treatment of juvenile offenders.
Unfortunately, our state laws have not changed yet, and minors charged with a sexual offense still risk the life-long punishment of being placed on the sex offender registry. If your child is currently facing a charge for a sex crime, it’s in your best interest to work with a defense attorney who has handled this type of case before. A good defense attorney will work hard to show that your child’s age and the nature of the alleged crime do not warrant a conviction and that counseling or therapy is a better means of addressing the issue.
About the Author:
Andrew M. Weisberg is a former felony prosecutor who now serves as a defense attorney in the greater Chicago area. He has extensive experience in handling all types of criminal cases, from sex offenses and violent crimes to theft-related crimes and domestic violence.