Friday, February 21, 2014

Candy Hatcher: Flaws in the State's Sex Offender Registry. HB523 and Edgar Coker Jr.

OpEd: Flaws in the state's sex offender registry, February 21, 2014
The Virginia Sex Offender Registry exists to keep society safe, especially its children. 

Sometimes, it does just the opposite. 

Sometimes, the law that prevents sex offenders from being on school property and around kids isolates and stigmatizes innocent people. It can ruin lives. 

Edgar Coker Jr. was 15 when a 14-year-old neighborhood girl accused him of rape in 2007. His Stafford County lawyer failed to investigate the claim and advised Edgar to plead guilty to avoid a lengthy prison sentence. 

He went to juvenile prison, and his name was added to the state registry, which publicly identifies and tracks the people who have been required to register as sex offenders. 

Two months later, the girl admitted she had lied. 

Edgar, now 22, has spent the past seven years trying to clear his name. 

He was released from juvenile prison in 2009, but courts refused to consider his claim of innocence. 

The unusual part of this story is not that Edgar was placed on the state sex offender registry with 20,000 others; it's that he finally got his name off. Last week, a judge found that his lawyer had done a sorry job representing him. She overturned the conviction and ordered his name removed from the sex offender list. 

The young man, who had struggled to find a job because of the registry, whose family had moved repeatedly because of harassment, who essentially had confined himself to home to avoid any trouble, now waits to see whether Attorney General Mark Herring will appeal - or whether Stafford County prosecutors will ask for a retrial. 

It's unthinkable, really, that the commonwealth would drag Edgar and his family through hell again. It's equally impossible to imagine Virginia promoting the automatic and lifelong labeling of teenagers as sex offenders.

But the House of Delegates did. Last week, it passed HB 523, which would have required public sex offender registration for juveniles found guilty of certain crimes. 

The bill would have taken discretion away from juvenile court judges, who now hear circumstances of the crimes. They determine whether the teen is likely to repeat his offense and whether inclusion on the registry is appropriate.
Fortunately, a state Senate committee killed that bill on Monday. Maybe the members heard that three courts in Pennsylvania have declared unconstitutional a similar law that required juvenile sex offenders to be automatically listed on a public registry. 

Or perhaps they'd heard what the registry had done to Edgar Coker's life, how he was arrested when he went to a football game at his alma mater. How his family couldn't go to parks because he wasn't allowed around kids. How a teenager with limited cognitive ability had had consensual sex with a friend who also had mental issues, and had wound up impoverished and disenfranchised. Who would hire him? Who would be his friend? 

In Oklahoma, youngsters judged guilty of a sex offense are placed on a confidential registry - accessible only to law enforcement - after an individual assessment of that child's risk. Once the offender is 21, if prosecutors want his name on the adult registry, there must be another petition, hearing and judicial determination. 

Typically, those found to be a risk are in an institution, not the community, so the number of teens on the registry is quite small. 

As of last week, the Virginia Sex Offender Registry had 20,662 registered offenders. We don't know how many of them committed sexual offenses as children because the agency doesn't provide a breakdown. We don't know how many on that list are serial rapists and violent predators because everyone on it is given the same label. 

We should be protected from the dangerous ones. They belong on the registry. They should be monitored and kept away from children. 

But as Edgar's case shows, all the names on Virginia's sex offender registry aren't predators. Before tagging people who are just starting out in life with something so permanent, we must make sure they're actually a risk.

Once a name is on that list, there's little chance of going back.