Marking kids for life on sex offender registries, July 25, 2016
By Nicole Pittman, Eli Lehrer, Stacie Rumenap
For decades, our country has been putting children as young as 8 years old on sex-offender registries. Hundreds of thousands of Americans are registered for things they did as kids, their entire lives tainted by youthful indiscretions as common as streaking or teenage Romeo and Juliet romances.
While lawmakers may not have been aware of the destructive consequences when they the passed registration laws, including the federal Adam Walsh Act, that include kids from the juvenile courts, new research confirms, definitively, registering youth is not an effective response — under any circumstance. It doesn’t make the community safer and it certainly doesn’t get at the root of the problem. Yet, 39 states and the federal government continue to do it. This July, lawmakers will markup the Adam Walsh Act, and it’s time to correct course.
That is why — despite very different political and policy perspectives — we have come together to form a new bi-partisan coalition, called Just Kids, to advocate for this much-needed social change. One of us is the Converse-wearing social justice lawyer who established the Center on Youth Registration Reform, another the founder of a conservative Washington think tank who considers himself a proud member of the “vast right wing conspiracy”, and the third the president of Stop Child Predators, a survivor-focused organization motivated by the shared goal of protecting children and holding victimizers accountable. It’s safe to say we don’t always see eye-to-eye on certain issues. But on this we stand in solidarity.The evidence of the ineffectiveness of child registration grows stronger by the day. In a new study to be published later this year, public health officials at the
Another study one of our organizations produced, estimated that youth registration imposes a $3 billion annual net social cost, diverting resources from evidence-based measures that would prevent child-on-child harm and support survivors. Meanwhile, cluttering registries with low-risk individuals makes them less effective at their presumed task, which is why many law enforcement officials have echoed our calls for youth elimination.
Registering young people undermines our juvenile justice system. There’s a reason we have distinct courts for kids: they ensure confidentiality, and, in most cases, the ability to seal juvenile records when someone turns 18. While it’s vitally important to teach kids the difference between right and wrong, all parents, teachers and juvenile justice professionals understand the importance of second chances; the juvenile justice system was founded on rehabilitative values.
We believe that every child deserves a childhood. When we label kids as sex offenders, though, we deny them that most basic human right, while doing nothing to benefit society.
Children on registries face social isolation, often physically banished from their communities by “child safety zones,” invisible fences that extend thousands of feet around schools, parks or any place children congregate. As they enter adulthood, they are burdened with joblessness, homelessness and vigilante violence. Youth who currently or have previously had to register as sex offenders report significantly higher rates of considering and attempting suicide.
Yet, empirical research shows that more than 97 percent of youth registrants have never and will never reoffend sexually.
Many children who end up branded as sex offenders do things that probably don’t require any involvement of the justice system at all. It may be undesirable for kids to “play doctor” or de-pants another classmate, but it’s also fairly normative behavior. Two 16-year-olds who exchange nude selfies may deserve to lose their mobile phones, but they aren’t “creating child pornography.” Teenagers who enter into consensual sexual relationships with other teens may be making bad judgment calls but having a boyfriend or girlfriend who is just a couple of years younger doesn’t necessarily make the older partner a “child predator.”
For more serious errors in judgment that kids make — ones that suggest they might harm society — there are treatments that have proven to redirect behavior. And let’s not forget that our criminal justice system allows juveniles, when truly warranted, to be tried in adult courts.
In this era of political polarization, let’s unite around one of the few issues we can all agree on: protecting children from harm. It’s time to put an end youth registration.
Nicole Pittman is director of the Center on Youth Registration Reform, Eli Lehrer is the founder if R Street Institute, Stacie Rumenap is president of Stop Child Predators.