Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Nicole Pittman: The Stain on Young Lives That Never Goes Away

The Stain on Young Lives That Never Goes Away, April 14, 2016
By Nicole Pittman

Brandon was 11 years old when Texas authorities charged him for indecent exposure. According to one account, he pulled his pants down; according to another, he urinated in public. 

Yet the state, in finding Brandon guilty, proclaimed the preteen a “sex offender.”  As it has for hundreds of thousands of others, that label sealed his fate.  After spending most of his teenage years in a juvenile facility, Brandon—whose full name has been omitted to protect his privacy—would still have to register as a sex offender when he came home.

Except he couldn’t actually go home. 

That’s because his parents’ house was located in a “child safety zone,” which can cover hundreds of yards around any place that kids congregate, from schools to parks to movie theaters. 

He, like 44 percent of all registered youth who are listed as “sex offenders,”  soon became homeless. And because he was homeless, he couldn’t provide authorities with a permanent address, which is a registration requirement; so he soon ended up behind bars again. 

Similar anecdotes of young lives ruined by this country’s sex crime registration laws—which are unparalleled in most of the world—abound. 

Roughly 200,000 of the 835,000 individuals currently on registries were minors when they were placed on the list.   This legal practice routinely brands kids— some as young as eight years old—as sex offenders. They are there for a spectrum of offenses that can include serious crime, but also for actions like playing “doctor,” streaking and consensual underage sex. 

The specifics of the offense are irrelevant to whether they are placed on a sex offender registry.   

Several years ago, before founding the Center on Youth Registration Reform at Impact Justice, I interviewed more than 500 people who were placed on registries for a Human Rights Watch report; some had to register into their 20s and 30s but many faced lifetime registration. Almost all reported severe mental health consequences. 

They experienced social isolation, and were often physically banished from their homes and communities by invisible barriers. As adults, they struggled to find jobs because of their status and were required to regularly check in with law enforcement. Failure to report even a minor change in their life situation could result in a felony charge that would send them to prison. 

Of the kids I interviewed, one in 5 had attempted to take their own lives. Many I never had the chance to talk with succeeded in doing so. 

Most kids will stop acting out sexually without any therapeutic or legal intervention. 

We call it growing up. 

Think about the worst decision you made as a kid. Now, imagine that you were publicly branded for the rest of your life because of that mistake. Imagine that you had to wear that label day after day, year after year, decade after decade. 

That is reality for too many individuals.  “We are more than our worst moments.” human rights lawyer Bryan Stevenson once declared in a TED talk about the traumatic impact of life-without- parole sentences on juvenile offenders. 

Similarly, when we register youth, we rob them of a second chance—an approach that contradicts the rehabilitation goals that supposedly drive our juvenile justice system. 

A recent study by researcher Sharon Denniston, which measured the impact youth registration has on adult depression, found that it’s not the legally imposed restrictions, but rather the sex offender label that often has the greatest psychological impact. 

Some states only require youth offenders to confidentially register with authorities, while others put them on public websites. Interestingly, those on non-public registries suffer from even higher depression rates than those on public registries, which suggests how deeply underage registrants internalize being labeled a sex offender.

Despite the old adage, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me,” most know all too well that negative characterizations tend to wedge themselves into the dark crevices of who we are. They are difficult to shed.  

Placing young people on lists has enormous consequences for those listed, but it does little to protect society. Tracking hundreds of thousands of registrants for entire lifetimes is a costly burden to law enforcement. The conservative Washington, DC-based R Street Institute recently conducted an economic analysis  revealing this practice costs as much as $3 billion a year and has virtually no economic or societal benefit. 

Decades of research definitively show it’s ineffective at best, and counterproductive at worst. Meanwhile, 11 states and the District of Columbia have never subjected kids to registration—with the same or lower new offense and recidivism rates. 

This year has marked a turning point in how the American criminal justice system treats young people. 

On top of a watershed Supreme Court ruling, which gives people serving life without parole for crimes committed when they were juveniles a chance at release, President Barack Obama announced in January a ban on solitary confinement for kids under 18 housed in federal prisons. 

Many juvenile court judges and law enforcement authorities are now calling for the removal of children from registries. Even Patty Wetterling, who advocated for the 1994 Jacob Wetterling Crimes Against Children and Sexually Violent Offender Registration Act, which created the first registry, has publicly denounced subjecting any child to registration laws. 

At least half a dozen states, many conservative-run, are considering changing their laws to exempt kids from registries. In 2013, Missouri’s legislature passed a bill to take all youth off registries. It flew through the House unanimously and passed the Senate 28-4, but Gov. Jay Nixon vetoed the bill.  However, given the strong support from legislators, the state is primed to tackle this issue again. 

In Illinois, a legislatively commissioned task force unequivocally recommended eliminating the practice of placing kids on registries. In Pennsylvania and Ohio, the state supreme courts have ruled the practice unconstitutional.

It’s time the public and lawmakers make this a national issue. Our children’s futures are at stake.