By Michael Zoorob
When lawmakers crafted laws to combat sexual violence, they probably never expected that children as young as 10 would end up on public sex offender registries. Law enforcement probably never expected that they would have to notify neighbors that a 13-year-old sex offender lived nearby. Yet that is the reality of America’s sex offender registration laws: Though the judicial system tends to distinguish between youth and adult offenders, 35 states subject minors convicted of sex crimes to the same registration, notification and restrictions as adults. Seven states require juveniles to stay on the registry for life. These crimes aren't always violent, either: A recent Human Rights Watch report notes that teens have found their way onto sex offender registries for benign acts like sexting, public urination and consensual sex with other teens.
In fact, 36 percent of all sex offenders who victimize children are themselves juveniles — and more than half of these juvenile offenders are 14 years old or younger, according to a recent study commissioned by the Department of Justice. It is understandable that laws should be created to curb sexual violence — but imposing the stigma of longtime and sometimes lifelong sex offender registration on juvenile offenders creates unnecessary harm both to them and their families. Juvenile offenders often experience emotional problems, difficulty securing employment, social ostracization and difficulties at school. There are, incredibly, cases of teens being barred from attending school due to their presence on sex offender registries because they sexted, the act of which the law considers child pornography. As adults, these offenders can expect restrictions on their residency, employment and mobility, and a significant minority will be fired, harassed, assaulted or even murdered because of their sex offender status.
Registration may also hinder crime rehabilitation of youth offenders. Depriving juvenile offenders of access to education, employment, religious services and healthy relationships — all common consequences of sex offender registration — could actually raise the probability that these children become lifelong delinquents. Unfortunately, registration requirements may deter families from reporting sex crimes committed by their child against a sibling for fear of the legal consequences, thus denying access to rehabilitative services.
Registration of juveniles has also been shown not to reduce sex crime. Studies by Elizabeth Letourneau of the University of South Carolina have found that registering juvenile offenders neither reduced overall rates of offenses nor reduced recidivism. This makes sense. It’s hard to argue, for example, that public safety was enhanced by the eviction of a 26-year-old married woman from her home in Georgia because a daycare center opened nearby. Her crime was that she had oral sex with a 15-year-old when she was 17.
- The same applies to adults. Sex laws do nothing to reduce recidivism.
Moreover, juvenile offenders are distinct from their adult counterparts. Children who commit sex crimes, even violent ones, usually do so as a way of “acting out,” not because they eroticize aggression. Consequently, psychologists have found that rehabilitation is very effective for juvenile sex offenders, and very few juvenile offenders re-offend as adults. Most studies find the recidivism rate of juvenile sex offenders to be less than 5 percent.
- Recidivism rates are the same for adults as well.
Sex offenders deserve special opprobrium in our society. But we shouldn't let our visceral disgust with sex crimes bar us from making sensible public policy. Children are not miniature adults, and the law should not treat them that way.