Throwing Away the Key on Society's Youngest Sex Offenders

Article excerpt


Although the academic community has hotly debated the merit and constitutionality of sexually violent person commitment laws, (1) no one has addressed the impact these laws have on juvenile sex offenders. (2) Regardless of their constitutionality as applied to adults, (3) the appearance and administration of sexually violent predator laws with jurisdiction over juvenile delinquents violates several constitutional principles at both the state and federal level. (4) Because minors do not receive the protection of the Sixth Amendment, (5) sexually violent predator laws for juveniles violate both the Due Process and Equal Protection Clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment. (6)

Illinois, as the founder of the juvenile justice system in the United States, (7) gives a prime demonstration of how a state's criminal, juvenile and mental health laws interact to violate the rights of the nation's youngest offenders. Because of the Juvenile Court Act, minors may be charged with regular crimes but generally face trial in Juvenile Court, rather than criminal court. (8) For example, a minor accused of aggravated criminal sexual assault, a Class X felony under Illinois criminal law, (9) would face this charge in Juvenile Court. Minors adjudicated guilty of sex crimes are subject to the Sex Offender Registration Act (10) and the Sexually Violent Persons Commitment Act, (11) just like adults convicted of similar crimes. (12) Scholars and practitioners have debated the merit of these types of laws, questioning their efficacy and constitutionality. (13) Under the Sexually Violent Persons Commitment Act, people found to be sexually violent may be involuntarily committed to a secure facility for an indefinite period of time--until deemed "cured," or no longer sexually violent. (14)

Juveniles in Illinois normally do not receive jury trials when charged with offenses like aggravated criminal sexual assault. (15) Because of two thirty year-old cases declaring that juveniles do not have state or federal constitutional rights to a jury trial, (16) the Juvenile Court in Illinois will usually deny any motion for a trial by jury. (17) If the State later petitions for a juvenile guilty of aggravated criminal sexual assault or other sex offenses to be classified as a sexually violent person, its petition would include the fact that he had been adjudicated guilty of a sex offense or offenses as a juvenile. (18) This constitutes one half of the State's burden of proof in order to commit this young person to a secured treatment facility for an indeterminate amount of time. (19)

Thus, any juvenile sex offender, regardless of age, could be incarcerated indefinitely because of just one offense, yet that minor had no jury trial for the original offense, the offense that led to his determination as a sexually violent person. (20) Without the right to a jury trial for the criminal offense, the use of a juvenile's past adjudication as a sex offender in a sexually violent persons commitment proceeding violates the minor's due process and equal protection rights by allowing the state to indefinitely, commit him based on the bench trial adjudication of guilt. (21) States like Illinois that intend to apply their sexually violent person laws to juvenile offenders must provide a juvenile defendant with a jury trial option for the alleged sex offense or forfeit the state's ability to commit later the juvenile as a sexually violent person. (22)

Part II of this comment discusses the juvenile court and the state and federal cases that have denied juveniles a constitutional right to jury trials. (23) Part II also explains how the sex offender registration and sexually violent person laws operate. In Part III, the interplay of these systems and laws is analyzed. Finally, Part IV concludes that while involuntary commitment laws for sex offenders may be legal for adult offenders, they are unconstitutional when applied to juvenile offenders because the offenders lack the right to jury trials. …