South Carolina Supreme Court (copy) (copy)

The South Carolina Supreme Court/File

Last week's S.C. Supreme Court ruling that juveniles convicted of certain sex crimes must be registered for life on the state's sex offender registry is drawing outcry from attorneys and researchers. 

The opinion, issued Wednesday, upheld a family court ruling on an April 2013 incident in Spartanburg County in which a 14-year-old sexually assaulted a 5-year-old. The teen was found delinquent for committing first-degree criminal sexual conduct with a minor.

Under state law, anyone, regardless of age, who is convicted of or found delinquent under that charge, is required to register as a sex offender and wear an electronic monitor, both for life. Juveniles are treated the same as adults under the law. 

Prosecutors applauded the ruling, saying that some young offenders are beyond rehabilitation and need to be monitored, but other attorneys and researchers say the lifetime registry makes rehabilitation difficult if not impossible.

Brandt Rucker, the attorney for the juvenile identified in court documents as Justin B., said the family is deciding whether to pursue further legal action.

"It's impossible to rehabilitate you if you're on the registry," Rucker said. "My view is that there's a better way to treat juveniles. When you place them on these lists, no matter how hard they try, they can never rehabilitate. We are simply asking for a system where judges have a say."

The attorney said he is not criticizing the court, but he thinks officials have to consider whether juveniles like his client pose a future risk to the community.

Brenda Jones, executive director at the National Association for Rational Sexual Offense Laws, echoed Rucker’s sentiment, calling the registry unjust and ineffective.

As for Justin B.’s case, Jones added, “Let him serve the time, which he deserves, and then let him get the treatment he needs and become a productive member of society,” she said. “You’re not preventing crime by throwing adults or kids in jail for a certain amount of time and putting them on a registry.”

Problems with the registry

Ninth Circuit Public Defender Ashley Pennington said it is clear from the court's decision that there are major issues with the registration requirement.

"(The court's) finding of technical rationality and legality in Wednesday’s decision does not find that these laws remain wise policy," Pennington said, in a statement.

While the state's highest court left the question of reforming those laws to the Legislature, Pennington said research since the law was passed in 1994 shows juvenile offenders who receive appropriate treatment aren't likely to reoffend. Public safety would be better served by providing such treatment, "tailored supervision," and periodically reviewing the costs and benefits of electronic tracking and registration, he said.

"The isolation and stigmatization of children and adults caused by these laws can have the effect of increasing despair and future criminality," he said. "Researchers in (South Carolina) and Ohio have studied this issue and found that their law was not reducing recidivism but tending to generate instability and criminal behavior. Ohio, Rhode Island and other states are now considering changing their law."

Prosecutors say they can't ignore what was done to the victim and that they have to think about public safety for years to come.

Seventh Circuit Solicitor Barry Barnette, whose office prosecuted the case in family court, said having lifetime registry as an option is necessary because some juveniles are beyond rehabilitation.

"That 5-year-old is going to live with this for the rest of his life," Barnette said. "Victims this young have no choice. This is a message to everybody that we're not going to tolerate crimes against children."

The solicitor said having mandatory registration as an option gives him more leeway as a prosecutor.

Barnette said if the situation is appropriate — such as a sexual relationship between two teens who are close in age — he may consider bringing forward a first-degree assault and battery charge, which would not carry the registration requirement.

"This law needs to be there," he said.

Ninth Circuit Solicitor Scarlett Wilson also applauded the court's decision.

Having a lifetime registry for juveniles "who are clearly 'disturbed'" is necessary for public safety, Wilson said.

"As for the Legislature, I believe it is worth exploring having a family court judge make the determination as to whether the (sex offender) registry is necessary versus making it mandatory," Wilson said. "Sex offenses are all disturbing, but they do vary in the level of egregiousness and violence involved."

What the researchers say

Those who've studied juvenile sex offenders and the impacts of the registry say that research doesn't support the need for juveniles who commit these crimes to register for life.

Gregg Dwyer, director of community and public safety psychiatry division and faculty with the department of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the Medical University of South Carolina, said treatment is proven to significantly help youthful sexual offenders.

"Adolescents that engage in sexual misbehavior look more like their fellow juvenile offenders (who commit) other offenses than they do like adult sex offenders," Dwyer said.

The goal of the juvenile justice system is to rehabilitate, he said, but placing a juvenile offender on a registry for life presents some serious obstacles to moving forward, including hampering their ability to find a job, further their education, see and interact with their families, attend religious services and secure housing, he said.

Elizabeth Letourneau, a former faculty member at MUSC who is currently a professor with the Department of Mental Health for the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and director of Moore Center for the Prevention of Child Sexual Abuse, has carried out research on juvenile sex offenders and the impacts of the registry in South Carolina.

Letourneau said she studied 15 years of cases involving juvenile sex offenders and found a 3 percent recidivism rate.

"Almost no kids, when they're caught, reoffend," she said. "The factors are correctable."

Treatments such as multisystemic therapy are proven to reduce recidivism in a juvenile offender even further, she said. Policymakers should consider the cost of such a program, which run about $10,000, compared with the expense of a lifetime of monitoring.

"We've published research with South Carolina data and other states showing that registration doesn't work," she said. "We find the same thing over and over again: For kids, it's not effective. Labeling and stigmatizing a child does not help that child reach full potential. This is a failed policy that needs to end."

In the opinion, authored by Justice John Cannon Few, found the Legislature had a right to treat juveniles the same as adults as far as registering for sex offenses "so long as the legislature's action is rationally related to its purpose."

Michael Majchrowicz contributed to this report.

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Reach Gregory Yee at 843-937-5908. Follow him on Twitter @GregoryYYee.

Gregory Yee covers breaking news and public safety. He's a native Angeleno and previously covered crime and courts for the Press-Telegram in Long Beach, CA. He studied journalism and Spanish literature at the University of California, Irvine.

Michael Majchrowicz is a reporter covering crime and public safety. He previously wrote about courts for the Daily Hampshire Gazette in Northampton, Massachusetts. A Hoosier native, he graduated from Indiana University with a degree in journalism.