HELENA - A federal appeals court ruled Wednesday that juveniles whose identities otherwise would be protected can be required to publicly register as sex offenders.
The 9th U.S. Circuit of Appeals denied the argument by three males in Montana who said lower-court judges should not have sentenced them to register as offenders for sex crimes committed when they were children.
The defendants, in a consolidated appeal of three separate cases, cited the confidentiality provisions of the Federal Juvenile Delinquency Act. Those provisions are safeguards meant to help the child avoid the stigma of a past criminal conviction and to encourage treatment and rehabilitation.
The panel of three appellate judges said those provisions don't apply to children 14 and older when it comes to sex offender registration. Congress intended to exclude certain juveniles from confidentiality when it created the Sex Offender Registration and Notification Act, or SORNA, the judges ruled.
Juvenile justice advocates say the ruling is the first of its kind. Advocates say the decision is short-sighted and represents an erosion of confidentiality protections given to youth offenders who are generally unlikely to repeat their offenses.
Requiring them to register as sex offenders will make it difficult for them to move past their juvenile offenses and become productive adults, said Tracy Velazquez, executive director of the Justice Policy Institute in Washington, D.C.
"I am concerned that (the ruling) will make it more difficult for advocates to argue for the importance of not putting kids on the registry," Velazquez said. "The fact that the federal government has said states can keep youths off the registry and still comply with SORNA, hopefully that will not change as a result of this."
Jessica Fehr, spokeswoman for the U.S. Attorney's Office in Montana, said in an email it would be inappropriate for her to comment on the case in the event the defendants appeal the decision.
Sex offenders must have their photographs taken, which are made public along with their names, addresses, criminal history and status of release.
The judges found that those requirements conflict with the confidentiality provisions of the juvenile delinquency law.
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To decide which law should rule in this case, the appellate panel looked at both laws and statements in the Congressional record.
The judges found that the sex offender registration law "unambiguously directs juveniles over the age of 14 convicted of certain aggravated sex crimes to register."
"Thus, Congress was aware that it was limiting protections under the (juvenile delinquency law) by applying SORNA to certain juvenile delinquents, and intended to do so," Judge Kim McLane Wardlaw wrote in her opinion.
The judges also denied claims that the law violates several constitutional provisions.
Juvenile sex offenders over 14 aren't a class protected by the Constitution's equal protection clause and forcing them to register is not cruel and unusual punishment, the panel ruled.
The judges also shot down claims that the law violates constitutional provisions against self-incrimination, due process and effective counsel.
The three who brought the case are identified in the opinion only by their initials. They all pleaded guilty to separate instances of committing an act of juvenile delinquency. The charges against them would have been aggravated sexual abuse with children had they been adults.
One is 20 years old and pleaded true to an offense that happened in July 2008, when he was 17.
The second offender is now 20 years old, and he pleaded true to offenses committed in 2005 and 2007, when he was between the ages of 13 and 16.
The third offender is now 17. He pleaded true to an offense that happened on the Rocky Boy's Indian Reservation in 2008 when he was 14.