Columbia lawmaker pushes lower standards for coroners

House Minority Leader Rep. Todd Rutherford, D-Columbia, believes South Carolina shouldn't require coroners to be medical experts. File

COLUMBIA — A South Carolina lawmaker is on a mission to change the way the state treats juvenile sex offenders.

House Minority Leader Rep. Todd Rutherford, D-Columbia, has introduced a bill that would allow teens who have been convicted of any sex offense and have been placed on the offenders registry to petition the courts to remove their names once they turn 21.

The bill stands little chance of becoming law this year with just six days left in the legislative session. But its potential for passing next year would be “absolutely huge” and a “sea change” in the way South Carolina does things, Rutherford said.

“We’ve got to reform our juvenile justice system in South Carolina,” said Rutherford, who added that the sex offender registry is one of his biggest frustrations with the system. “We are condemning people on that registry to a life of nothing.”

Under the bill, a child offender on the registry who was convicted as a juvenile would have to jump through several hoops to get his or her name taken off. That includes being evaluated by a private and state psychologist who would testify in court on the person’s potential of re-offending. The current draft of the bill calls for preventing the person from re-petitioning the court for three years if the request is denied.

The petition can be made regardless of the offense. To allay fears of public safety, Rutherford stressed that older teens who commit a high-level sex offense, such as rape, usually are prosecuted as adults, making them ineligible to apply to be taken off the registry.

Rutherford, a criminal defense attorney, said he is committed to reintroducing the bill until it gets passed to stop “branding children for life as sex offenders.”

“By branding them that early, we have destroyed their lives,” he said. “We’ve got to figure out how to make it better.”

He isn’t alone in his thoughts. Jeff Moore, who represented the South Carolina Sheriff’s Association for more than 30 years before retiring in 2014, said to force a teen who committed a mistake to remain for the rest of his or her life on the registry essentially ends their lives.

“They can count their lives over because no college will accept them,” Moore said. “Applying for a job will be next to impossible. The point is these young people are children. They do things that as adults they wouldn’t do.”

Moore stressed he’s not promoting sexual promiscuity among teens. But the reality is that young people may find themselves with “raging hormones” and “experimenting with their sexuality.” He added that he doesn’t think Rutherford’s idea goes far enough; he’d rather see 21-year-olds automatically expunged from the registry if they have not re-offended.

In 11 jurisdictions, including Georgia and New York, teens adjudicated as committing a sex offense are not required to register as an offender, according to a 2013 report by the international advocacy group Human Rights Watch. Another 20 states have instituted special juvenile procedures or age limits that can end the teen’s duty to register after a certain point, according to the Center for Sex Offender Management.

Numbers on how many South Carolina juveniles are on the registry are difficult to track down because the registry doesn’t differentiate between teens and adults. And numbers on how many adults could benefit from the law are also difficult to attain because the registry does not state if they were convicted as juveniles.

In 2013, Human Rights Watch issued a report on the harm it causes to require juvenile sex offenders to be placed on a registry. The report, authored by Nicole Pittman, detailed how the label causes “long-term public humiliation” and can cause “profound damage to a child’s development and self-esteem.”

An offender, interviewed by phone for the report in 2012 as a 26-year-old and identified only as Christian W., said he went on the registry at 14 years old for inappropriately touching his younger cousin.

“I live in a general sense of hopelessness, and combat suicidal thoughts almost daily due to the life sentence (registration) and punishment of being a registrant,” Christian said. “The stigma and shame will never fully go away, people will always remember. The consequences will always be there even if one could eventually get off the registry.”

Rutherford’s bill faces at least one opponent, however. The state’s chief victims rights advocate, Laura Hudson, said she will fight the current draft of the bill because it does not comply with the federal Sex Offender Registration and Notification Act, commonly referred to as SORNA. The state would lose federal grants for failing to comply with SORNA.

Hudson said she’s OK with having a judge re-evaluate a juvenile sex offender placed on the registry as long as it’s been 10 years since they committed the offense.

“I am very annoyed and will do everything I can to kill it,” Hudson said. “This is about public safety.”

Reach Cynthia Roldan at 708-5891.