A new report by Human Rights Watch is calling attention to the effect of sex offender registrations on juveniles—those who commit a sex crime while under the age of eighteen. But many youth offenders are much younger than that:
Throughout the United States, children as young as nine years old who are adjudicated delinquent may be subject to sex offender registration laws. For example, in Delaware in 2011, there were approximately 639 children on the sex offender registry, 55 of whom were under the age of 12. . . . A 2009 Department of Justice study, which focused only on sex crimes committed by children in which other children were the victims, found that one out of eight youth sex offenders committing crimes against other children was younger than 12.
While some youth offenders are clearly dangerous, the report lists numerous questionable instances of sex offense, for example:
Maya R., now age 28 and a resident of Michigan, was arrested at the age of 10 for sexual experimentation. ‘Me and my step brothers, who were ages 8 and 5, “flashed” each other and play-acted sex while fully-clothed.’ A year later, Maya pled guilty to the charges of criminal sexual conduct in the first and second degree, offenses that required her to register as a sex offender for 25 years. . . .
In 2004, in Western Pennsylvania, a 15-year-old girl was charged with manufacturing and disseminating child pornography for having taken nude photos of herself and posted them on the internet. She was charged as an adult, and as of 2012 was facing registration for life. . . .
In 2006, a 13-year old girl from Ogden, Utah was arrested for rape for having consensual sex with her 12-year-old boyfriend. . . . Her 12-year-old boyfriend was found guilty of violating the same law for engaging in sexual activity with her, as she was also a child under the age of 14 at the time.
One of the report’s key findings is that youth sex offenders are unlikely to reoffend:
In 2011, the national recidivism rate for all offenses (non-sexual and sexual combined) was 40 percent, whereas the rate was 13 percent for adult sex offenders. Several studies—including one study of a cohort that included 77 percent youth convicted of violent sex offenses—have found a recidivism rate for youth sex offenders of between four and ten percent, and one study in 2010 found the rate to be as low as one percent.
Given such low rates of recidivism among youth sex offenders, the report argues that registration laws and related restrictions can only minimally further the goal of preventing future incidents. Meanwhile, long-term, even lifetime, registration, can be damaging to children.
Youth sex offenders on the registry experience severe psychological harm. They are stigmatized, isolated, often depressed. Many consider suicide, and some succeed. They and their families have experienced harassment and physical violence. They are sometimes shot at, beaten, even murdered; many are repeatedly threatened with violence. Some young people have to post signs stating ‘sex offender lives here’ in the windows of their homes; others have to carry drivers’ licenses with ‘sex offender’ printed on them in bright orange capital letters. Youth sex offenders on the registry are sometimes denied access to education because residency restriction laws prevent them from being in or near a school. Youth sex offender registrants despair of ever finding employment, even while they are burdened with mandatory fees that can reach into the hundreds of dollars on an annual basis.
The report recommends a number of policy changes, foremost among them that juveniles be kept off sex offender registrations, at least until research demonstrates that registration improves public safety to an extent that outweighs the harm brought to youth sex offenders and their families.
It is understandable that sex offenses against children are punished with special severity. But the report is nonetheless unsettling. In some cases, normal sexual development appears to be criminalized. And lifetime registration means there are no second chances. That seems a heavy burden indeed when available evidence suggests that reform is possible.