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Override adds dose of fairness to safety
Daily Herald Editorial Board
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Published: 10/17/2007 12:12 AM

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Despite the governor's contention that a "do-over" on juvenile sex offender registration requirements "condones leniency toward sex offenders," the General Assembly's override of his veto instead struck a blow for fairness.

The override, 76 to 34 in the House and 41 to 8 in the Senate, axed the requirement that juvenile sex offenders must register as adults at 17 and made it possible for them to eventually ask a judge to remove their names from juvenile registries.

Those overrides were a wise acknowledgment of an over-reactionary law that went into effect Jan. 1, 2006. It actually read 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" -- even if he was 12 or 13 at the time of his offense.

In Illinois, where no distinction is made between types of offenses or the age of offenders, that means a 13-year-old who touched a girl's breast and then fled was equated with an adult rapist or child molester. That simply is not fair, especially since juveniles who took plea deals under one law might have rejected them under the terms of the later, harsher law.

Under state law, juvenile sex offenders still must register, but their names are withheld from all but law enforcement, schools and day-care organizations. Those registrations can run from a short time to life.

The latest change allows juvenile offenders to petition a judge to remove their names from juvenile registries if -- and here is the key -- they can show they constitute no threat. They could do so five years after a felony adjudication or two years after a misdemeanor.

Judges must consider a risk assessment by an evaluator approved by the Sex Offender Management Board, the sex offender history of the applicant, evidence of rehabilitation, age, information about the applicant's mental, physical, educational and social history and victim impact statements. This is safe and fair. It places on the petitioner, where it belongs, the burden of convincing a judge that he does not pose a threat.

A Kane County case involving a 13-year-old boy helped drive the legislative fix. He knocked on the door of a 13-year-old neighbor, and when she opened it, he grabbed her breasts and ran away. He had never been in trouble before but was convicted of home invasion and criminal sexual abuse. He spent some weekends in jail, attended sex abuse counseling and was given five years of probation. He met all requirements and was considered a model probationer.

The law changed and he turned 17, meaning he had to register as an adult sexual offender, a public listing that carried repercussions for life. In his case, that was a weight that outweighed his juvenile offense at 13. His attorney led the fight to change a law that he felt imposed a penalty too onerous for the boy's conduct at 13. The legislature agreed, giving the young man a chance to restore his future.

That's laudable in a state that created the first juvenile justice law, quite literally writing the book on the notion that youthful errors ought not ruin a life forever if a lesson is learned.