by Michael McKay
The headlines today are full of stories of righteous indignation over immigrant children being separated from their families. While that dilemma is certainly newsworthy, the American public seems largely unaware of the fact that tens of thousands of our own children are being taken from their families each year and tossed into a rapacious legal system that chews them up and spits them out as sex offenders. As hard as it may be to believe, The Department of Justice estimates that there are at least 89,000 children on the sex offender registry, and it should come as no surprise to anyone that it’s destroying their lives.
Imagine, for a moment, what it would be like to have your child listed publicly on the sex offender registry, complete with a photograph, home address, and even a description of the sex crime that resulted in his (or her) inclusion on the list. Consider what kind of life your child would have if, because of sex offender restrictions, he couldn’t attend school, go to a park or swimming pool, or have a birthday party because other children will be there. Some states simultaneously have laws requiring minors to attend school while at the same time forbidding sex offenders from being anywhere near a school. 44% of sex offenders overall (and presumably juvenile sex offenders, as well) are unable to live with their supportive families due to residency restrictions. Many are forced into foster care, even as bills have been introduced to bar juvenile sex offenders from foster homes and other communal youth facilities.
Elizabeth Letourneau, PhD and professor at the Bloomberg School’s Department of Mental Health and director of the Moore Center for the Prevention of Child Sexual Abuse said, “Not only is this policy [of putting juveniles on the sex offender registry] stigmatizing and distressing, but it may make children vulnerable to unscrupulous or predatory adults who use the information to target registered children for sexual assault.” Letourneau’s findings in a 2018 study published in Psychology, Public Policy, and Law found that registered children are five times more likely to be approached by an adult for sex than non-registered child sex offenders and four times more likely to have suicidal thoughts.
Other wide-ranging unintended consequences of being a juvenile on the registry include harassment and violence. 52% of juvenile registrants have reported violence or threats of violence which they directly attributed to their inclusion on the registry. Bruce W., whose two sons (aged 10 and 12) were placed on the registry for an offense against their 10-year old sister, reported that a man once held a shotgun to his 10-year old son’s head. In a 2012 Human Rights Watch interview, one female juvenile registrant said, “I was on the public registry at age 11 for the offense of unlawful sexual contact… Random men called my house wanting to ‘hook up’ with me.” Other HRW interviewees described beatings, drive-by shootings, and even beloved family pets being killed.
Without a doubt, some of the children on the sex offender registry are convicted of horrific crimes which led to appropriately harsh punishments. There are others, however, who end up convicted and branded as sex offenders for what has been characterized as fairly normative behavior for children or teens, such as playing doctor or engaging in sexual exploration. Teens who exchange sexy selfies shouldn’t be charged with creating child pornography. Having consensual sex at that age may be a very stupid thing to do, but it hardly rises to the level of sexual assault or predation.
At least 27 states and one territory require that juveniles must register if they commit a sex offense for which an adult in the same jurisdiction would be required to register. 37 states reserve registration for juveniles convicted of specific qualifying offenses. It is difficult to know exactly how many children have been placed on sex offender registries nationwide, however. Studies regarding children on the sex offender registry are relatively rare, and the states typically do not track information regarding the ages of offenders when they were added to the registry. Human Rights Watch attempted to obtain this information from each of the 50 states, but only two responded – and those with aggregate counts only. According to the U.S. Department of Justice, juvenile sex offenders comprise 25.8% of all sex offenders and 35.6% of sex offenders against juvenile victims. They estimate that in 2004 there were 89,000 juvenile sex offenders known to police.
As for the overall age distribution of these juvenile offenders, there is very little data available. Arizona, Arkansas, Colorado, Kansas, Minnesota, Texas allow juvenile registration at 8-years old. Massachusetts allows sex offender registration for kids as young as 7-years of age. In 2011, there were 639 children on Delaware’s sex offender registry, 55 of whom were under the age of 12. In 2009, a study conducted by the Department of Justice discovered that nationwide, one in eight child sex offenders who committed crimes against other children was under the age of 12. Overall, according to the DOJ’s Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, “Known juvenile offenders who commit sex offenses against minors span a variety of ages. Five percent are younger than 9 years, and 16 percent are younger than 12 years. The rate rises sharply around age 12 and plateaus after age 14.”
Maya R. was arrested in Michigan at the age of 10 for play-acting sexual scenarios while fully clothed with her step-brothers, aged 5 and 8. She pled guilty to criminal sexual conduct and was required to register as a sex offender for 25 years. In many states, when children engage in sexual similar conduct, each child is charged with a crime and is simultaneously listed as the victim in the other’s case.
According to a 2013 Human Rights Watch report, the idiosyncrasies of the juvenile justice system can seriously compound the problems associated with how child offenders end up on the registry. It is doubtful, for example, that they fully understand their rights to due process and against self-incrimination. And we really don’t know if they fully comprehend the devastating (and sometimes forever) consequences of pleading guilty before they accept a plea bargain. Even adults can find the plea bargaining process confusing or coercive, even though this is how 94% of all criminal cases are resolved. Often, these juveniles are not informed that they will be subject to registration until after they have pled guilty, and sometimes not until they have finished serving out their juvenile detention or incarceration. The decisions made by a 10-year old should never have permanent ramifications that will impact them for the rest of their lives yet, in many of these cases, they do.
The inclusion of juvenile sex offenders on the registry was mandated by SORNA (Sex Offender Registry and Notification Act) and has been a major bone of contention and non-compliance by the states since it was signed into law in 2006. In 2016, additional guidelines were issued to give states more flexibility in implementing laws regarding juveniles on the registry, but many states remain out of compliance and some of the states who are in compliance are being challenged in the courts. It is worth noting that the DOJ estimate of 89,000 juvenile sex offenders was in 2004, two years before SORNA began pushing the states to put juveniles on the registry. That number is probably much higher now.
The 2018 study in Psychology, Public Policy, and Law supports these legal challenges, finding that “in combination with the available literature indicating that these policies do not improve public safety, the results of this study offer empirical support for the concerns expressed by those calling for the abolition of juvenile registration and notification policies.”
The abomination of having nearly a hundred thousand children on the sex offender registry is just one of the many reasons why SORNA is unconstitutionally cruel and unusual and needs to be repealed now.