Ten-year-old Leah pretended to have sex with her younger step-siblings. She said it happened a few times and that she was just acting out scenes from the movies. A couple years later, Leah’s conduct was discovered by law enforcement.
According to the Center on Youth Registration Reform’s estimates, Leah is one of the approximately 200,000 individuals placed on sex offender registries for actions they engaged in before they were 18 years old. Proponents of laws that require children to be placed on sex offender registries argue that providing the public this information will help people keep their families safe from harm. But many believe that including children on registries does much more harm than good.
When the community is aware of registrants, many youth and their families have suffered humiliation, victimization, and violence. Leah, mentioned above, explained that one time during college, she returned to her room to find a note attached to her door: “We know you’re a sex offender. Get out of our dorm. You’re not wanted here.” After a few more incidents like this one, Leah dropped out of school. And one father, whose sons were labeled sex offenders at ages 10 and 12, said neighbors passed out pamphlets with his sons’s photos on them, and someone threw a Molotov cocktail through his front window.
Registering kids as sex offenders is not only harmful, it is also considered by many to be unconstitutional. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled that mandatory, lifetime registration was unconstitutional because it required young people to register as sex offenders without any consideration of whether they posed a future risk of reoffending. The court also reasoned that the stigma that follows a young person labeled a sex offender is inescapable and violates the individual’s constitutionally protected right to reputation. Similarly, the Ohio Supreme Court struck down mandatory, lifetime registration for young people, calling it cruel and unusual punishment under the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution.
Depending on the state, registration can last anywhere from a few years to the individual’s entire lifetime. During that time, they may be required to appear in person — in some cases every week and in others, every 90 days or more — to update and verify their information. This can include details like where one’s car is parked, their online usernames, and, if they are homeless, a few places they may frequent. If a young person fails to provide this information or to return to the police station to report any changes in this information, they may be charged with a felony offense and incarcerated.
These laws are based upon the assumption that juveniles who commit sex offenses will commit them again. Research has showed that the overwhelming majority of juvenile sex offenders won’t — between 97% to 99% of young people who commit a sexual offense never reoffend. Not all sex offenses committed by juveniles are sexually motivated; some young people who are required to register have cognitive or intellectual disabilities or are on the autism spectrum.
As they age, young registrants can have difficulty finding and keeping jobs. Many registration laws prohibit certain types of work or impose residency restrictions. Registrants can experience homelessness or family separation. Youth on the registry also can suffer from depression, and one in five registrants has reportedly attempted suicide. One state passed a law prohibiting registrants from using social media, which the U.S. Supreme Court struck down as unconstitutional.
In addition to the many fees young people are charged while in the court system, registration triggers a whole new set of monetary obligations. For example, in New Orleans, registered young people are required to notify their communities by sending postcards to their neighbors within a which cost one individual
Leah was 12 when she was convicted of criminal sexual conduct in juvenile court and labeled a sex offender. The law required her to remain on the sex offender registry for 25 years. She says she lost jobs and internships as a result. When she was about to enter her freshman year of college, an old friend called her up to tell her she’d seen Leah’s name and photograph on the state’s online public registry. Even though her friend knew the circumstances of Leah’s conviction, it seemed all anyone would see when they searched her name was “sex offender.”
Maintaining juvenile sex offender registries has failed to keep communities safer. Some activists argue that rather than focusing on punishing young people for the rest of their lives, we should continue to hold youth accountable while investing in prevention and victims’ services. For example, California spends $140 million a year to register youth, compared with only $46,000 it spends on victims’s services and prevention.
In October, California passed a law that includes prohibiting lifetime registration for children and permitting those tried in juvenile court to petition for removal from the registry after five or 10 years. Under this new law, a person like Leah would be able to ask the court to remove her name from the registry after five to 10 years — but for many, the damage has already been done.