A national practice since the late 1990s, sex offender registration and community notification for adult offenders has correlated with significant drops in the rates of sex offenses. Nevertheless, there remains significant debate over its actual social benefits. The same cannot be said, however, for juvenile sex offender registration, which is both economically disastrous and causes incredible hardships for children raised on the registry. This is because registration brings with it a number of disabilities both legal (e.g., exclusion from certain jobs, professional licenses or places of residence, and a requirement to carry certain identifications) and practical (e.g., the social stigma of being branded as a sex offender) that can affect the child well into adulthood. In fact, no crimes are averted through the juvenile registration process and the social costs far outweigh any potential benefits.
Such facts notwithstanding, in 40 American states, juveniles who commit sexually-related offenses can be required to register—sometimes for life. This is even more concerning when one considers that recidivism rates among registered juveniles are actually indistinguishable from similarly situated youth who are not required to register. Among youth sex offenders, recidivism rates range only from three to 4 percent, with over 90 percent of arrests representing a singular event. In fact, arrests for sex offenses accounted for less than 1 percent of all arrests committed by youth aged 17 or younger. Given such an extremely low likelihood of occurrence both for first-time and repeated offenses, to commit juveniles to a potentially life-long registry list fails to rationally address the ultimate problem.
In addition to issues of efficacy, registration is simply unjust. As Nicole Pittman’s report for Human Rights Watch has shown, many children are forced to register simply for engaging in consensual sexual behavior with other teenagers. While such behavior may be problematic for many reasons, it is hardly a criminal matter. For example, teenagers caught “sexting” private images of their own bodies may deserve to lose their mobile phones but do not deserve to go to prison for “distribution of child pornography.” Likewise, 17-year-olds who have consensual sex with 15-year-olds may need some form of behavior correction, but it is hard to argue that they are guilty of “statutory rape.” Indeed, even children that engage in behavior that does warrant criminal or mental health intervention—like forcible groping or touching—should not face lifelong sanctions if the issue is dealt with under the purview of the juvenile justice system.
Image by Jan H Andersen