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Justice finally prevails on youthful mistake
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Published: 4/9/2008 12:09 AM

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The test of any experience in the judicial system is simple enough. In the end, was the disposition fair?

For a South Elgin youth first caught up in that system in 2002 at age 13 and whipped about by lawyers, legislation and a governor, a fair measure of justice was finally delivered six years later by 16th Circuit Judge Wiley Edmondson.

To be sure, the boy put himself into the maw of the judicial machine when he knocked on a neighbor's door with a buddy and then grabbed the girl's breasts before running off in a stupid, offensive pubescent stunt.

Then, inexplicably, he pleaded guilty to home invasion and criminal sexual abuse, serious crimes far exceeding the actual behavior.

The boy was nonetheless a model probationer, and in normal circumstances, the juvenile crime would have been overcome by time and the confidentiality accorded young violators.

But between the time he pleaded guilty and the time he turned 17, Illinois law changed. As of Jan. 1, 2006, the law required that a juvenile sex offender "upon attaining 17 years of age shall be considered as having committed the offense on or after the sex offender's 17th birthday."

As law goes, it was ludicrous. As fairness goes, it was a travesty that a 13-year-old offender, having reached his 17th birthday, would suddenly be equated with a 25-year-old rapist or a repeat child molester on the state's sex offender registry.

It was especially a travesty in Illinois, a state that was the first in the nation to create juvenile law, to understand that youthful errors ought not ruin a life forever if justice had been served.

The young man fought the law requiring his listing as an adult offender, saying that wasn't the deal he made when he pleaded guilty at 13. He wanted either a change in the law or a chance to change his plea.

The legislature passed a bill to change the law. The governor vetoed it, claiming it both "condones leniency toward sex offenders" and "eroded the dependability" of information provided the public.

Simply not true. The information given on this young man would have been grossly inaccurate. And it isn't right to change the rules of the game and apply them retroactively.

The legislature rightly overrode that veto, 76-34 in the House and 41-8 in the Senate, large margins that reflected the obvious fairness of the change.

Now Edmondson has ruled the young man, currently a 19-year-old college student, can be taken off the state's sex offender registry, that he is not a threat to the public.

Already chagrined at his own behavior, he must be overjoyed to finally exit a legal system that treated him fairly in the end but was more unpredictable than the 13-year-old it deemed such a threat.