A 14-year-old Missouri boy’s vicious sexual assault on his adult sister landed him in the juvenile justice system.
But should it land him on the Missouri sex offender registry for the rest of his life?
That’s the question the Missouri Supreme Court is being asked to answer by attorneys for the St. Louis boy, identified in court documents as S.C.
The court heard oral arguments on the case Wednesday morning and took the matter under advisement.
Attorneys for S.C. argue that subjecting a juvenile to the same registration requirement imposed on adult sex offenders is cruel and unusual punishment, and it contradicts the goal of the juvenile justice system to “rehabilitate and reintegrate.”
They say several studies show that juvenile sex offenders are no more likely to commit sex offenses as adults than other juveniles.
“Lifetime sex offender registration has no relationship to the goal of protecting society from re-offenders and yet imposes severe hardship on juvenile offenders by impairing their ability to rehabilitate and function as productive members of society,” according to documents filed by S.C.’s lawyers.
The Missouri attorney general’s office argues that S.C.’s appeal should be dismissed.
They say that Missouri is following federal law in requiring certain juveniles to register as offenders, and federal appeals courts have upheld the constitutionality of similar laws in other states.
“The risk posed by someone who, like S.C., has attempted to forcibly rape another, creates a sufficient basis … to mandate actions that will protect the public against the likelihood of similar future offenses,” the state says in its written answer to the appeal.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Missouri has filed a brief supporting the boy’s case.
“When children are treated and punished as adults, we see constitutional difficulties,” said Gillian Wilcox, an ACLU staff attorney in Kansas City.
The story of S.C. is a sad one.
Exposed to cocaine in utero, he also was found to have a high level of lead in his system at a young age.
He bounced in and out of the foster care system and an adoptive family and at age 4 was already experiencing anger and disciplinary problems.
In March 2014, he was arrested for physically assaulting his 41-year-old adoptive sister and attempting to rape her.
Last September, after a psychological evaluation found that he “did not exhibit serious risk factors associated with sexual behavior and sexual preoccupation,” a judge found him guilty and ordered him into state custody. He also required that S.C. obtain sex offender treatment and be required to register as a sex offender.
Although the judge ordered him to be placed on the juvenile registry, his attorneys say the state law automatically requires his placement on the adult registry even if the judge didn’t specifically order it.
And attorneys for the state concede that is likely.
Under Missouri law, most juveniles placed on the registry are removed when they turn 21. But those, like S.C., who were 14 or older when they committed certain serious crimes have to register as adults when they turn 21.
Statewide, more than 300 people are now on the registry for crimes committed while juveniles. Citing privacy concerns, Jackson County court officials declined to say how many of those are in the Kansas City area.
Once on the adult registry, placement is for life, and the law does not allow for a way to petition for removal.
That’s one of the issues that S.C.’s lawyers are contesting.
They argue that it is “fundamentally unfair” to impose an adult sanction on a juvenile.
They say the law disregards the idea that juveniles are less culpable for their criminal actions and are more amenable to treatment than adults.
“Moreover, it eliminates the juvenile judge’s central role in disposition: to consider the individual characteristics of the juvenile when imposing treatment options and court conditions to further rehabilitation while protecting the community,” they stated in their appeal.
In its arguments in support of S.C., the ACLU of Missouri cites research by social scientists that shows that requiring lifelong sex offender registration for juveniles can actually increase their chances of recidivism because offenders “find themselves isolated from important social, educational and family networks.”
“No opportunity exists for children or their counsel to present evidence demonstrating they should not be required to register publicly for the rest of their lives,” the ACLU argues.
Attorneys for the state, however, argue that appeals courts have found that sex offender registry laws are not criminal punishments, but are civil in nature and are designed with the “rational basis” of giving the public information about individuals who pose “a significant risk.”