Teen sex offenders would have their photos posted online under a new federal law that threatens to undo reforms state lawmakers pushed through last session.
During a legislative hearing Wednesday, Sen. Karen Johnson, R-Mesa, said it might be worth opting out of the Adam Walsh Act and risk losing federal law enforcement funds.
Johnson led efforts to soften punishment for young, nonviolent sex offenders after hearing tearful testimony from constituents about teens as young as 14 prosecuted as adults and placed on lifetime probation for one-time incidents with a family member or a younger girlfriend.
The new state law, which takes effect next week, allows teens to have their cases sent back to juvenile court or have their probation lifted, and requires that they be placed in treatment with young people convicted of similar crimes. The law applies only to nonviolent, first-time offenders.
“To think that the Adam Walsh Act might wipe all that out is pretty hard to take,” Johnson said. “A lot of kids make mistakes ... (only) to have their whole entire life ruined, with no light at the end of the tunnel.”
The 2006 federal law is intended to protect children from violent sex offenders by creating a nationwide registration and notification system.
For the first time, those requirements will extend to juveniles, and be applied retroactively, as well as on tribal lands.
Patty Morris, a supervisor with the state Department of Public Safety, which administers the state’s sex-offender registration site, said Arizona is well ahead of other states in complying with the federal law.
The state has until July to comply, or risk losing more than $1 million in federal drug interdiction funds. But lawmakers and state officials suggested the new law might cost more than that to implement.
It requires listing additional information in the sex offender registry, including the offender’s school and workplace. It also requires notifying neighbors, schools and child welfare agencies. Morris said it’s unclear how notification would work on remote tribal lands.
The interim committee on youthful sex offenders, cochaired by Johnson, expires at the end of the month. But Johnson urged committee members, who include prosecutors, probation officials and the chief juvenile public defender, to keep meeting and recommend legislation for the upcoming session.
East Valley families testified last session their children had been forced to live in homeless shelters, placed in group therapy with adult rapists and subjected to harsh sex-offender probation terms that prevent them from having a family or living a normal life.
Jason Grygla, a counselor and former juvenile probation officer, said the committee needs to address the problem of law enforcement agencies holding cases until teen offenders near their 18th birthdays, increasing the odds they’ll be prosecuted as adults.
“They’re sitting on these cases before they’re filed,” Grygla said. “The charges come down and they’re yanked out of treatment and put into the adult system.”
Barbara Marshall, chief of the juvenile crimes division for the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office, disputed that, saying it’s considered malicious prosecution to hold onto a case.
Also Wednesday, Human Rights Watch released a report arguing that laws aimed at alerting the public to sex offenders in their midst may do more harm than good.
The international watchdog group singled out the Adam Walsh Act for requiring juvenile registration, saying it can only exacerbate problems with state registration systems.