At age 10, Maya R. did something that would disturb just about anyone: “Me and my step-brothers, who were ages 8 and 5, ‘flashed’ each other and play-acted sex while fully clothed,” she told Human Rights Watch researcher Nicole Pittman. After copping to the incident in juvenile court, Maya’s punishment was an 18-month sentence in a detention center, mandatory counseling, and a quarter-century of registration as a sex offender.
Maya’s mistake had significant consequences for her life. With her name on a sex-offender registry, she faced harassment in college and ultimately dropped out. Facing huge barriers to finding housing, she spent 90 days in a homeless shelter. She fell into a deep depression. Despite a clean adult record and a life that eventually got on the right track—she did missionary work, married, and now has a child of her own—Maya can’t escape the “sex offender” label. She and thousands of others like her continue to be punished for mistakes they made as children.
In April, prosecutors in Archbold, Ohio, brought charges that could have meant mandatory registration for high-school students caught exchanging nude “selfies.” An Indiana judge, likewise, has sentenced two teenage boys to lifetime sex-offender registration for having sex with teenage girls they met online. In some states, even trivial offenses like public urination and streaking can land children on registries.
Currently, 40 states have sex-offender registration for those convicted in juvenile court. This ought to trouble us, not least because it undermines the usefulness of the registries. It’s a policy that needs to change at both the federal and the state levels.
The juvenile justice system is predicated on a trade-off. Juvenile defendants have fewer rights, but the system is supposed to expend greater effort at rehabilitation. There are no jury trials in juvenile courts. Records are typically confidential, and rules of evidence are looser. As counterbalance, juveniles serve shorter sentences and are sent less frequently to secure facilities. Sanctions are, at least in theory, levied in the “best interests” of those convicted, rather than meted out as punishment.
Unlike adult criminal records, which normally follow offenders for life, juvenile records can be sealed at age 18 (the procedure is automatic in some states). Even unsealed juvenile court convictions (which generally aren’t on the public Internet) typically don’t affect offenders’ ability to vote, live where they choose, receive most government benefits, get professional licenses, and hold public office. When juveniles commit particularly atrocious crimes, like murder or violent rape, every state offers a procedure that would permit them to be tried and sentenced as adults.
Sex-offender registries impose some of the most severe restrictions that face anyone convicted of a criminal offense. In addition to public humiliation, made more intense in the Internet age, those required to register as sex offenders often are forbidden from living close to schools and day-care centers, pushing many far out into the country or even into homelessness (and homeless shelters turn many away). Sex offenders can be denied professional licenses and may be subject to near-constant police surveillance. Since most juveniles on sex-offender registries have victimized other juveniles, some also face restrictions intended for adult pedophiles, and can be excluded from living with their own siblings and even, as they get older, with their own children. Even those who do manage to find jobs and places to live will generally see much lower wages and find healthy adult relationships much harder to establish.
Registry laws were created to deal with the problems of recidivist pedophiles and serial rapists. They are a harsh response, but public sentiment holds they are just. And they are certainly popular, as evidenced by near-unanimous votes to create them in state after state. It’s less obvious how society benefits from imposing such long-lasting sanctions in response to mistakes made by children. There’s little evidence that youthful sex offenders remain a public danger. The largest meta-analysis shows that only about 7 percent of youthful sex offenders are ever convicted of another offense. Some studies have found reoffense rates as low as 1 percent. By comparison, 40 percent of adults convicted of serious crimes reoffend.
Juveniles convicted of sex offenses clutter the registries. They account for as much as 25 percent of the rolls. Monitoring these individuals for decades wastes resources that law enforcement and social workers otherwise could use more effectively to target those who pose real dangers to society. (And where young offenders do appear to pose such truly significant risks, prosecutors can avail themselves of the opportunity to file adult charges.)
States are encouraged to include juveniles in their registries by the federal Adam Walsh Act, which ties federal funding to state and local enforcement to the degree to which state registries comply with the law’s classification system for sex offenders. Not only should these incentives be eliminated, but Congress should consider withholding some grant funds from states that continue to list those adjudicated in juvenile court on the registries.
At the least, many states should rejigger their registry laws. Teenagers who have sexual relationships or exchange nude “selfies” with other teenagers may need counseling, punishments from their parents, and admonitions from other adults. But they shouldn’t routinely face criminal sanctions for “statutory rape” or “child pornography.”
Pre-teens like Maya R. who act out sexually may well have serious problems that require more extensive intervention. But absent strong evidence that they’re likely to reoffend, they shouldn’t face lifetime sanctions more severe than those levied on juveniles who commit crimes like armed robbery and auto theft. Like other juvenile offenders’, their records should be eligible to be sealed, and they certainly shouldn’t spend long periods on sex-offender registries.
Including children on sex-offender registries is a grave injustice that does little good and much harm. Congress and state legislatures need to undo the damage they have done.