Catherine L. Carpenter
Southwestern Law School
September 1, 2013
Imagine if you were held accountable the rest of your life for something you did as a child?
This is the Child Scarlet Letter in force: kids who commit criminal sexual acts and who pay the price with the burdens and stigma of sex offender registration. And in a game of “how low can you go?,” states have forced children as young as nine and ten years old onto sex offender registries, some with registration requirements that extend the rest of their lives.
No matter the constitutionality of adult sex offender registration – and on that point, there is debate – this article argues that child sex offender registration violates the Eighth Amendment’s (Wikipedia) prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment (Wikipedia). Once a sex offender, always a sex offender is not an apt adage when dealing with children who commit sexual offenses. Low recidivism rates and varied reasons for their misconduct demonstrate that a child’s criminal sexual act does not necessarily portend future predatory behavior. And with a net cast so wide it ensnares equally the child who rapes and the child who engages in sex with an underage partner, juvenile sex offender registration schemes are not moored to their civil regulatory intent.
Compounding the problem is mandatory lifetime registration for child offenders. This paper analogizes this practice to juvenile sentences of life imprisonment without the possibility of parole, which the Supreme Court declared unconstitutional in Miller v. Alabama (PDF) and Graham v. Florida (PDF). This article argues that mandatory lifetime registration applied to children in the same manner as adult offenders is cruel and unusual punishment because it violates fundamental principles that require sentencing practices to distinguish between adult and child offenders.
Scrutiny of child sex offender registration laws places front and center the issue of what it means to judge our children. And on that issue, we are failing. The public’s desire to punish children appears fixed despite our understanding that child offenders pose little danger of recidivism, possess diminished culpability, and have the capacity for rehabilitation. In a debate clouded by emotion, it is increasingly clear that juvenile sex offender registration is cruel and unusual punishment.
Number of Pages in PDF File: 57
Keywords: juvenile, sex offender registration, cruel and unusual punishment, Megan's law