By Katie Warner, Paralegal
In 2011 an Ohio youth was found guilty of committing rape. By the end of the case the Montgomery County Judge sentenced the young boy to serve at least a year of state detention, with the possibility that he be incarcerated until the age of 21. As if that were not enough, the Judge also ruled he register as a sex offender upon his release.
Unhappy with this outcome, the boy appealed ultimately to the Ohio Supreme Court. With a good defense team behind him, his lawyers argued that such designation should be determined by the time of his release to allow the young boy the opportunity to consider rehabilitation and treatment throughout his incarceration.
Unfortunately for the youth and his team of lawyers, the majority opinion begged to differ. Justice Paul Pfeifer wrote that the language in the statute was unambiguous and therefore a juvenile court has the discretion to hold its hearing on whether or not a juvenile file as a sexual offender either at the time of the sentencing or at the time of release. However, this decision is ultimately up to the juvenile court.
On Tuesday, July 22nd of 2014, in a 7-0 ruling, the Ohio Supreme Court decision guaranteed this ruling stating that judges can hold hearings to determine the offender status of juveniles convicted of sex crimes either at the time they are found guilty or at the time of their release from detention.
While some such as Pfeifer reason that classifying a youth at sentencing is beneficial in the sense that it may motivate the youth to complete treatment and rehabilitation programs, others argue that even the possibility of a youth having to register as a sex offender should not even be an option whatsoever. Even though the state may deem this punishment necessary to protect the public, on the flip side this could mean social suicide for the offender, taking away any chance of normalcy for the rest of his or her life.
The balancing act thus has to focus around creating a system that keeps the public safe, yet at the same time, the system must not stigmatize a young individual for the rest of their life. As the saying goes, punishment must meet the crime, but does placing a child on a sex offender list really fit the crime?
According to studies conducted by Mark Chaffin, a well-renowned Professor at the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center, youth sex offenders are less likely to reoffend than adult sex offenders. It has in fact become an erroneous notion that juvenile sex offenders are a high-risk population. Rather than trying to understand the mind of an adolescent youth, public policy has created a misconception of these individuals throughout the years. Thankfully due to more research being conducted specifically on adolescents, there is more validation behind the argument that youth sex offenders have a lower recidivism rate than adult sex offenders due to cognitive development.
So as a community, at the end of the day we have to decipher what's more important: Rehabilitating an adolescent back into the real world allowing them to grow and prosper on their own or, ostracizing them for the remainder of their lifetime making it impossible for them as well as their families to have any semblance of a normal life?