After years of establishing and strengthening sex offender registries, some states are rethinking policies allowing juveniles to be placed on them.
In states such as Oregon and Delaware, lawmakers have given judges more power to review who goes on the registry. In Pennsylvania, courts have ended lifetime registration for juveniles.
Driving the changes are concerns that putting juveniles’ names and photos on a registry – even one only available to law enforcement, as in some states – stigmatizes them in their schools and neighborhoods and makes them targets of police, sometimes for inappropriate behavior rather than aggressive crimes. Also of concern are laws that add youth sex offenders to adult registries once they turn 18 or 21, even though they were tried as juveniles, not adults.
Human Rights Watch in a 2013 report pointed to the case of a 10-year-old Michigan girl who served time after she and her younger brothers flashed one another in 1991. She was placed on the state’s adult registry when she turned 18. The report also cited a Texas juvenile court that convicted a 10-year-old of indecency with a child for touching a younger cousin – a crime resulting in lifetime registration.
State laws requiring juveniles to register as sex offenders came into wide practice after Congress passed laws such as the 1996 Megan’s Law and the 2006 Adam Walsh Act, which were named in memory of children murdered by sex offenders. They were designed to better track sex offenders and make information easily accessible to law enforcement and the public. They sought more community notification and greater consistency among state registries.
Thirty-eight states now add juveniles to sex offender registries. The remaining 12 states only add the names of youths convicted in adult courts.
States with juvenile registries vary greatly in what they require. Sixteen states publish juvenile offenders’ names, addresses and photos on a website. In some states, youths may petition to have their name removed from a registry, although it can take more than a decade before they can begin the process. Some states add names to a registry for a set amount of time, while others keep offenders on the list until they die. As their photos are updated through the years, the offenders begin to look less like children and more like pedophiles.
Supporters of juvenile registries say they’re important for public safety, and serve an important purpose for families and victims.
Opponents say the penalties are too harsh for children who have been intentionally kept out of adult court.
Nicole Pittman, director of the Center on Youth Registration Reform at Impact Justice, said registries are contrary to the concept of juvenile courts, which are based on the premise that children are more capable of change and should be shielded from the harsher consequences of adult court.
Research shows a child convicted of a sex crime, or an “adjudicated delinquent” in juvenile court, is not likely to commit another sex offense.
Although the recidivism rate for adult offenders is low, generally around 10 percent, youth sex-offender recidivism is usually less than 5 percent, said Elizabeth Letourneau, a professor with Johns Hopkins University and an expert on juvenile sex offenders.
She said registry policies don’t make sense because they’re applied across the board to people who are very unlikely to commit another offense.
“A lot of them don’t know what they’re doing is wrong, but they learn that very quickly, though, once they’re going through the legal process,” Letourneau said.
She said the registries can have a scarlet letter effect on children.
They tend to be more depressed and anxious than their peers, and have less stability because they are shuffled from school to school and family to family, she said.
Another concern: Even when someone is removed from a registry, the information can remain on nongovernmental sites for years.
Even those who aren’t placed on public registries still may have to notify nearby schools or have a postcard sent to addresses within so many miles of their house.
Pittman said people often don’t see why children who aren’t on public websites are affected, but things like mailers are a big deal.
“When you think about a child’s life, that 3-mile radius is their life,” she said, which includes many of their friends, neighbors and classmates.