Sex offender registration policies were initially developed for adults with sexual offenses, but have recently been extended to include youth with sexual offenses as well. At first glance, sex offender registration and notification (hereafter referred to as SORN) may make us feel safer, produce relief knowing that these individuals are being punished.
However, many of us don’t realize that these practices don’t protect our children. Required registration of and notification about youth with illegal sexual behavior, in particular, has resulted in serious economic and psychological burdens at multiple levels, affecting not only the youth who have to register (e.g., increase in suicidal ideation), but also their families (e.g., judgment from others, loss of job), neighbors (e.g., devaluation of home value) and communities (e.g., stress levels, potential changes in reputation).
Mental health providers and child advocates like myself and colleagues at the Moore Center for the Prevention of Child Sexual Abuse who have examined policies concerning sexual offending among youth know that SORN requirements stem from an ill-fitting classification system that has deleterious consequences.
Before I continue, it is important to address a question that may have entered your mind by now: “What is juvenile sex offender registration and notification?” This inappropriate downward extension of policies aimed at adults toward minors began when President George W. Bush signed the Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act.
Broadly speaking, the Adam Walsh Act requires children with inappropriate sexual behavior to 1) register in each jurisdiction in which the youth resides, works or attends school, and 2) make periodic (at least annual) in-person appearances to register in places such as police stations or the local courthouse. Such policies mandate that youth age 14 or older who were convicted of a sexual offense (meeting certain criteria) keep up registration that can span several years to a lifetime.
While the development of SORN was (and often is) believed to make communities safer, it not only fails to do so, but can also ruin individuals’ lives. Consider the case of Demetrius (name changed for confidentiality), who grew up in a rural area of a Southern state and was the star of his high school football and basketball teams. At 15, Demetrius was dating a girl, age 14. When her parents found out they had consensual sex, a rape charge was filed. Demetrius was sentenced to a juvenile correctional facility for sex offender treatment and was sentenced to lifetime sex offender registration.
After returning to his community following confinement, Demetrius was no longer welcome on his high school athletic teams, and anticipates he will not be admitted into college due to his inability to be scouted by college teams. In addition, his family has been impacted by his registration status. Demetrius and his mother are moving to a new town, as their community has ostracized them. Demetrius’ mother lost her friends once word spread about his legal difficulties, and they are no longer welcome in their church.
Another boy, who I will call Will, was a youth from a Midwestern state who had difficulties finding a girlfriend due to his awkward social nature. At age 17, he got his first date with a 17-year-old female. Not long into the relationship, he was feeling hopeful about taking things to the next level. Will and his new girlfriend consensually shared nude photographs of themselves via text.
One day at school, Will’s teacher confiscated his cellphone and found the images. Will was charged with possession of child pornography, was mandated to attend sex offender-specific treatment and was required to register as a sex offender. Once he was sentenced and placed on the registry, he was severely bullied by classmates, was dumped by his girlfriend and unable to get a job.
At this point, many of you may be thinking, “These are exceptional cases. What about those individuals who sexually abuse very young children, or those who are psychopathic and rape for fun?” There are a number of reasons youth may be required to register, and even among youth who engage in highly inappropriate sexual activity, SORN does not deter offending or reduce reoffending.
However, youth can be placed on a registry for far less severe sexual behavior. Youth who send sexts (text messages with sexual information including nude or seminude images) can be charged with child pornography. Perhaps even more absurd, consensual sexual activity between teenagers can lead to SORN.
In the United States, it is clear that youth with a sexual offense conviction face often insurmountable stigmatization and forfeiture of their civil rights without empirical basis. This severe response by the public and by policymakers toward youth who engage in inappropriate sexual behavior includes stringent registration requirements developed for high-risk adult offenders.
Not only does SORN often inaccurately categorize adolescents as at high risk for sexual reoffending, there are substantial and widespread monetary costs linked with the implementation of SORN, incurred by governmental agencies and by individuals and organizations including schools. Beyond these consequences, placing children on a sex offender registry assigns them a label. Indeed, community members often have negative perceptions of individuals labeled as a sexual offender, as do legislators and even the youth with inappropriate sexual behavior themselves.
Generally, these false beliefs include that: 1) punishment is necessary and effective, 2) an individual will reoffend and 3) individuals who have engaged in inappropriate sexual behavior are dangerous. These concerns are unfounded, developing in the absence of evidence or empirical support.
It is time to reverse our thinking about registration and notification as a means of controlling and reducing sexual offending. While it can be difficult for many of us to overcome the stigma associated with sexual offending, it is important to recognize that isolating and punishing youth does not make society safer or protect our children. Data indicate that youth with prior adjudicated sexual offenses are at no more risk for sexual reoffending than other delinquent youth, and, thus, there is no empirical or rational need to implement burdensome and toxic registration requirements for these youth.
The social and legal implications of these findings are extensive, but two implications are particularly relevant to the argument against SORN requirements. First, SORN has no positive utility for the management of youth with sexual offense convictions. Second, if we hope to reduce sexual offending, focusing on preventative treatment efforts like those described in Dr. Elizabeth Letourneau’s TEDMED Talk is strongly advised.
Rebecca L. Fix, Ph.D., is an assistant scientist at the Moore Center for the Prevention of Child Sexual Abuse in the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. Her research focuses on juvenile sexual and violent offending, juvenile sex offender registration and disparities in the juvenile justice system that impact youth with adjudicated violent and sexual offenses.