While the Tennessee legislature debates whether to include juveniles on the state's sex offender registry, one newspaper is ran an editorial discussing the flaws of such a proposal. From The Tennessean:
Tennessee's top law-enforcement officials want juveniles convicted of sex crimes to be named on the state's public sex-offender registries, a notion that is likely to have broad popular support.
But the repercussions of such a plan, which must be approved by the legislature and the governor, may far outweigh the benefits.
The Tennessee Bureau of Investigation will ask lawmakers to introduce the bill as part of a move toward state compliance with the Adam Walsh Act, named for the famous case of a young boy slain in 1981.
A portion of Tennessee's federal law enforcement funding will depend on whether the state decides to add offenders under age 18 to the sex offender database.
It is unfortunate that money should enter into a painful decision such as this, because there certainly are valid points on both sides of the argument. Dangling the prospect of federal dollars during a recession only obscures a discussion that should be held on actual merits of the plan.
It is easy to see why many want the offenders made public. Young offenders might be able to blend in with a crowd of kids, where an adult offender could not.
But being able to shun the offender does not make the offender's will to commit abuse go away. To do that, the offenders need court-ordered counseling and treatment programs — especially when the sex offenders are not yet of an age when brains and emotions are developed enough to make mature decisions. Virtually all young sex offenders were themselves abused, and their criminal behavior is a result of that experience.
For treatment to work, those youths need some expectation that they will not be forever branded and outcast.
Convicted individuals, whether guilty of sexual or other offenses, will go on committing crimes if they have no one to turn to. They will be sent to prison and, when the system cannot hold them any longer, they will get out and repeat the cycle.
Throwing kids, even those who have done terrible things, into the center of a fearful public with a letter on their forehead is little better than locking them into a cell with adult criminals. And hoping they will simply go away and trouble no one ever again is unrealistic and dangerous.
The TBI hopes not only to get the bill passed, but to gain a one-year extension on the April deadline for federal funding. Their energies might be better spent working with the juvenile justice system to see that underage sex offenders get counseling as quickly as possible, and that their progress is well-monitored by trained professionals.
The state's sex-crime laws are intended to protect innocent people from harm; stigmatizing troubled young people when there is a chance to turn them around only exposes other innocent people to further crimes later.
It is hoped that "protect'' is the key concept here, and not "punish." If retribution is the overriding motivation, the cycle of abuse is likely to continue.