Attempts by Missouri legislators to override Gov. Jay Nixon’s veto of a bill that would have removed hundreds of individuals from state sex offender registries faltered earlier this month, with the state House pushing HB301 to the wayside without a vote. In the wake of the bill’s failure, advocates on both the state and national level have aired their concerns regarding the practice of placing juveniles sex offenders on registries, with some considering the practice a counterproductive policy that does little to improve public safety.
The Missouri legislation affected those who, at the time of committing sex offenses, were juveniles. Had the bill not been vetoed, more than 800 people convicted as juvenile sex offenders would have been taken off the Missouri State Highway Patrol’s registries, with additional bill provisions creating avenues for juvenile sex offenders to be removed from other official police registries.
Despite passing both houses in the last legislative session, HB301 was ultimately vetoed by Nixon in May. In his veto letter, Nixon said that the legislation did not “strike the appropriate balance” between providing relief to juvenile offenders and upholding public safety. Nixon also criticized the bill for using “overbroad language,” additionally criticizing the bill for “depriving” victims the opportunity to be heard before an offender is removed from registries.
Missouri’s current sex offender registration law — based on the Federal Sex Offender Registry and Notification Act (SORNA) — has many detrimental effects on juveniles convicted of sex offenses, said Patricia Harrison, an assistant law professor and supervisor of the Saint Louis University School of Law’s Child Advocacy Clinic.
The problem, she said, is that SORNA is overbroad, with violent sexual offenses, like aggravated rape, and nonviolent offenses, like receiving or sending a “sext,“ resulting in the same punishment.
“A lot of it is statutory,” she said. “That the child is under a certain age, they’re automatically presumed to not be able to consent. But many of the juveniles who engage in these sexual acts are maybe 14 or 15 — so it’s just a year over the law’s cut-off anyway.”
Being listed on the registries, she added, also creates additional lifelong burdens for juvenile offenders.
“It impacts them emotionally, economically and socially,” Harrison said. As a result of being listed on registries, she said many juvenile sex offenders are automatically expelled from schools, and their families are likely to be forced to move. Unable to apply for subsidized public housing, she said that some offenders may be left with no alternatives to homelessness.
Furthermore, she said the laws are counterproductive, since sex offenders are among the least likely to juvenile offenders to re-offend.
“The statistics in Missouri show that juvenile sex offenders that have an adjudication for a sex offense only have a 7 percent recidivism rate, which is significantly lower than for other types of juvenile offenses,” Harrison concluded. “The next closest in terms of recidivism is around 20 percent, and those are property crimes.”
Robert Schwartz, executive director of the Juvenile Law Center, said about 40 states currently place juveniles on sex offender registries, with wide variation depending on age, types of offense and whether or not the registry information is public or private.
“I think most of us who have worked with kids think sex offender registration is a horrible idea that has very little public benefits and causes a lot of harm,” he said, “not only to the kids, but the public in general.”
Schwartz said the practice isolates young people — often prohibited from places where other children may gather, such as schools — and creates a stigma that is likely to prevent them from obtaining jobs or housing when they are adults. “This is not a traditional developmental pathway,” he said, “and the vast majority of these kids are not the kind of sex offender the public is really concerned about, the Jerry Sandusky predator type.”
Although juveniles convicted of sex offenses are among the least likely to re-offend, he said that registration laws create “lepers” in society, whose marginalization doesn’t improve public safety.
“These kids aren’t the people you think they are,” he concluded. “[The public] has an image of these kids as predators, and as people who are likely to be repeat offenders, and for most of these kids, that’s just not true at all.”