When should juvenile offenders be required to register as sex offenders?
To be clear, we are talking about children who have been charged with sex offenses – many of whom are only acting out their own abuse that they have suffered at the hands of adults.
If a 12-year-old child is charged with a sex offense against a sibling, pleads guilty, is provided with extensive treatment and counseling, and has substantial support from their family and therapists, should we then require them to register as a sex offender for the rest of their life?
A prosecutor and family court judge in Columbia, SC, thought so – even though every witness that they heard from testified that the child was a low risk to re-offend and none recommended that he be placed on the registry.
What does SC law say about placing kids on the sex offender registry?
When are Juvenile Offenders Required to Register as Sex Offenders?
SC Code Section 23-3-340 provides a list of offenses that require placement on the sex offender registry – these apply to children as well as adults (“any person, regardless of age…”).
But what if a juvenile offender is convicted of an offense that is not on the list?
In In re Christopher H., decided by the SC Court of Appeals on February 3, 2021, a juvenile was charged with CSC 1st degree against a younger child. He was 12-13 years old at the time of the incident, and he ultimately pled guilty to the lesser offense of assault and battery 2nd degree.
He was sentenced to placement at an inpatient sex offender treatment facility where he remained for 16 months before he was released. After he was released and three years after he was charged, the solicitor went back to court and asked the judge to order him to register as a sex offender (for life).
Although assault and battery 2nd degree is not a sex offender registry offense, the solicitor relied on a “catch-all” provision found in 23-3-340(D) which says that the court can order sex offender registry, even if the offense is not listed, “if good cause is shown by the solicitor.”
This provision applies to any defendant, including juveniles – if the solicitor can show “good cause,” the court can put you on the sex offender registry.
In this case, the judge agreed with the solicitor and ordered sex offender registry, but the SC Court of Appeals reversed, finding that it was an abuse of discretion because no evidence was presented that the teenager was a risk to re-offend.
For Good Cause Shown…
What was the “good cause” shown by the solicitor in the case linked to above?
- The state’s only witness was SLED’s general counsel, who testified that Christopher’s offense “would not qualify him for placement on the public registry.” He went on to note the difficulties that the registry would cause for him, including barring him from living on college campuses.
- Christopher’s therapist from the treatment facility testified that “Christopher successfully completed all four levels of treatment,” but that she does not recommend for or against registry placement for any of her patients.
- A forensic psychologist testified that “Christopher had a low risk of reoffending and his prognosis was ‘good, even perhaps excellent,’” and that “there [was no] empirical basis for placing Christopher on the sex offender registry.”
- His outpatient therapist’s supervisor testified that “Christopher should not be placed on the sex offender registry because his family was involved in and cooperated with his treatment, which increased his likelihood of success,” and concluded that she “would not deem [Christopher] to be appropriate for lifetime monitoring, whether public or private.”
- His outpatient therapist testified that “I look for . . . red flag issue[s during his sessions] and there hasn’t been anything like that. . . . I haven’t seen anything there that’s raised any real concern to me,” and that “she did not recommend that Christopher be placed on the sex offender registry because of his “low risk [of reoffending].”
Following the above testimony, the family court judge somehow concluded that “good cause existed to place Christopher on the private sex offender registry because there was evidence showing Christopher was at risk of reoffending.”
What does that mean? It appears that this family court judge will place anyone on the sex offender registry if the solicitor asks him to…
How much evidence is “good cause?”
At a minimum, we know from this case that no evidence is not enough evidence for good cause. As the Court of Appeals says, the solicitor must show at least a scintilla of evidence…
Should Kids Ever Be Required to Register as Sex Offenders?
What is the purpose of the sex offender registry?
It does not deter sex offenders from re-offending. It does not deter sex offenders from offending the first time.
It does allow the public to see who they are and where they live, with 1) the beneficial effect of allowing parents with children to avoid them, and 2) the harmful effects of stigmatizing the person in all areas of their lives and allowing every person with hatred for sex offenders to find and harass them…
Setting aside the debate as to whether adults should be required to register as sex offenders, should children be placed on the sex offender registry for life?
The treatment facility in Christopher’s case testified that their “view of the sex offender registry aligned with studies indicating placement on the registry does not reduce the rate of recidivism or otherwise provide safety to the community.”
The forensic psychologist testified that, although Christopher’s “prognosis was “good, even perhaps excellent,” he would never testify that someone will not re-offend – “you never get to zero,” and “the question was the degree of risk, not the existence of risk.” Implied in his testimony was the reasonable notion that no one is a zero risk for offending (including the judge, the prosecutor, the court reporter, the defense attorney…)
The outpatient therapist’s supervisor testified that placing a juvenile on the registry has unintended negative consequences, like:
- Difficulty getting into college,
- Not being able to live in on-campus housing,
- Rejection from ROTC and the military, and
- An increased risk of drug abuse and suicide.
She also testified that “there was no research indicating placement on the sex offender registry reduced the recidivism rate.”
Considering that the research shows that sex offender registry placement does not reduce the recidivism rate (it does not stop offenders from re-offending), it does not provide safety to the community, ethical psychologists cannot say that anyone is zero risk to re-offend, and sex offender registry can destroy a child’s life before they have a chance to live, why would we put any juvenile on the sex offender registry?
If a child is facing criminal charges that may require him or her to register as a sex offender, they need an experienced criminal defense lawyer on their side immediately who will fight to keep them off the sex offender registry whenever possible.
Whether you are charged with a sex offense or trying to get your conviction overturned, the SC sex offense attorneys at Axelrod and Associates want to help. Call Axelrod and Associates now at 843-353-3449 or email us to talk with a Myrtle Beach, SC criminal defense attorney today.