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Thursday, May 5, 2011 01:19 pm

Reformers blast sex offender legislation

Bill increases restrictions, requirements for sex offenders

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Legislation in the Illinois General Assembly to increase registration time and other requirements for Illinois’ 25,000 sex offenders awaits a House vote in the final days of the session. Opponents working to stop the bill say it would waste scarce resources without improving public safety.

Senate Bill 1040 would increase the length of time sex offenders have to register in the statewide database, increase the frequency of registration updates and even require sex offenders to report their whereabouts if staying in a temporary location for three or more days in a calendar year. Registration terms for applicable misdemeanors would increase from 10 years to 15 years, while convictions for other applicable crimes would require registration for 25 years. Sex offenders who don’t register or don’t update their address or other information would then have to register for life, and registration would also be required for several similar offenses under federal law.

The bill passed the Senate with a 59-0 vote on April 13 and will likely see a vote in the House before an upcoming May 27 legislative deadline. It is sponsored by Sen. William Haine, a Democrat from Alton.

If SB1040 becomes law, it will bring Illinois closer to compliance with the 2006 federal Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act, which mandates the longer registration terms for sex offenders and requires that individual states adapt existing sex offender registries to a federal standard, among other requirements. At least one federal law enforcement grant is tied to compliance with the Adam Walsh Act, so states that don’t comply risk losing federal funds.

But advocates for reform of laws pertaining to sex offenders say the longer registration terms and increased update frequency are an unnecessary enhancement to an ineffective system with regard to juvenile offenders.

Nicole Pittman, a juvenile justice policy attorney at the Juvenile Defenders Association of Philadelphia who studies state registration databases, says current registration requirements in Illinois unfairly stigmatize youth offenders. Her research indicates that 98 percent of all individuals who commit sexual offenses as juveniles do not commit further sex offenses, often because their crimes are only statutory violations rather than cases of sexual assault or abuse.

“What I’ve found is that registration for juveniles is not effective at all. It doesn’t have any effect on the level of public safety,” Pittman says, adding that Illinois sometimes requires sex offender registration for non-sexual offenses like urinating in public.

“It makes no sense to increase registration times to 15 or 25 years when a juvenile is not going to recidivate,” she says.

Tonia Maloney, director of Illinois Voices for Reform, says “many people required to register as sex offenders are teenagers having consensual sex with someone a few years younger.

“These young people are no threat to society, and especially children,” she says. “Having them register for longer periods of time does nothing to protect society, which was the original intent of the registry. Life as a registered sex offender is extremely difficult as it is. These young people just want a chance at a normal life.”

House Bill 1139, which would have relaxed penalties for a teen caught in a  consensual sex  act with another teen under the legal age of consent, failed in the House March 3 with a 36-73 vote. That bill would have also allowed certain juveniles to petition a court to waive their registration requirement.

Rep. Elaine Nekritz, a Democrat from Northbrook, requested that the state estimate how much SB1040 would cost and how many inmates it would add to Illinois prisons. Those requests – referred to respectively as a fiscal note and a corrections note – must be completed before the bill can pass. Nekritz said she is not sure when the notes would be completed, adding that she is not necessarily against the bill, but she believes penalty enhancements need more study.

“Increasing penalties in a state where we already increase penalties 20 to 30 times a year is not a rational policy,” Nekritz says. “I’m not sure these changes move us toward a rational policy when dealing with sex offenders, and all of these penalty enhancements cost us money. We really need to look at these issues before we act.”

Contact Patrick Yeagle at pyeagle@illinoistimes.com

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