Young Sex Offenders Shouldn’t Have to Register; It’s Ineffective and Hurts Everyone Around Them

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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.

27 thoughts on “Young Sex Offenders Shouldn’t Have to Register; It’s Ineffective and Hurts Everyone Around Them

  1. Yes, let’s feel sorry for monsters. I don’t care if it ruins their life. What about the victims they ruined?

    • Cynthia, do some research before you post your emotional outbursts – you obviously know very little on this subject. Not all sex offenders are child molesters or rapists, both of which the author was NOT defending.

      FYI – not all sex offenders committed crimes against a victim. And many were teenagers having consensual sex with, you guessed it, other teenagers.

    • Cynthia just remember they comes a time in everyone’s life that decisions are made that should not require forgiveness. Offenders often are that of Romeo And Juliet and labeled sex offender because the law makes it a crime. He that shows mercy shall find it. What have you done that needed someone’s forgiveness!! Think about it, Karma stands at everyone’s door.

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  4. First, thank you for this article. You are 100% on the mark, and more people need to hear this. However, I also agree with one of the other commenters here, that you should have expanded your discussion to include the adult offender population as well. The fact that you didn’t, causes me to believe that you may succumb to the same politically motivated biases that have brought these unjust laws into existence in the first place. Any time one indicates the supposed goal of “protecting children” – in this case offenders who are minors – you will instantly gain world’s attention and sympathy. Whereas , If you make the same argument for adult offenders, most people will default to their prejudices and fears and simply not want to hear it.

    The truth, however, is that your argument applies as much to adult offenders as it does to youth. Among all adult offenders, the number of those whose behaviors are pathologically deviant and might be of concern are very low. The vast majority of adult sexual offences are one-off cases resulting from compromised judgement or impaired decision making that are highly unlikely to be repeated, especially after experiencing a traditional form of punishment. Additionally, the recidivism rate for sexual offending in general is among the lowest of any crime category, and the call for SORN laws to exist in the first place has been the result of political fear mongering that has capitalized off very few high-profile cases.

    Just a few years ago, the Colorado Sex Offender Management Board (COSOMB), one of the most punitive and inhumane sex offender management systems in the country, was subject to an external review commissioned by the State Senate Budget Committee. This review was conducted by an impartial specialist team of forensic psychologists, and the results were very revealing. Not only were the practices of the system under review deemed unjustifiably punitive in nature, psychologically destructive, and socially crippling to the offender, the practices they employed were contrary to current research and best practices. The review also revealed some very enlightening facts about these programs in general, including SORN.
    Among the data included in the report were offending and recidivism statistics comparing states that impose highly restrictive intensive supervision and treatment programs with states that treat most sex offences no differently than any other crime. This comparison here showed that there was virtually no difference in overall offending patterns or in recidivism rates between these states. The study made it very clear that these “containment” type supervision and “treatment” programs including restrictive SORN laws did little to nothing to curb offending or to protect children. If we look at these facts and add it to the abundant knowledge we have pertaining to the damage these programs cause, one would have to question if creating what is nothing more than a delusional sense of security in society is worth the cost.
    And just a final note to those who may want to jump on my comment on the apparent ineffectiveness or sex-offender supervision and treatment programs: This ineffectiveness is not because the “sex-offender” can’t be “cured”, and are thus bound to reoffend. The opposite is true. The natural recidivism rate for sexual offending is naturally low, as is the percentage of offenders who are predatory or whose offending behaviors are habitual. Our laws make no effort to distinguish between the legal adult, who, in an isolated incident foolishly enters into a consensual relationship with a sexually active late adolescent, and a serial child molester. There is little sense to the way we categorize, prosecute, and punish sex-crimes in this country, and the damage and human suffering this mis-guided practice causes is far greater than any good they are believed to provide.

    I am not saying there are not offenders out there for whom high levels of supervision and treatment is necessary. I am only saying that those offenders are few compared to those who unjustifiably suffer under SORN laws and Orwellian supervision programs.

  5. “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.” (Emphasis by capitalization added.)

    There is that word again, “punish.” Every time I see that word in conjunction with the registry, I have to remind everyone that the registry only exists because it is NOT punishment, but is in fact regulatory. Indeed, had the registry been considered a punishment, then the Supreme Court would have rendered it invalid in the landmark case that justified the sex offender registry, Smith v. Doe, 2003.

    It is now patently obvious that the vast majority of people in the country view the registry as punishment, whether they believe it should exist or not. Therefore, a NEW challenge to the registry, as the predominant reason that the court even came up with that dubious distinction was the 100% lie that recidivism is “frighteningly high, which would easily be negated with a competent attorney’s argument.

  6. I worked with juvenile sex offenders from 2000_2010.They were incarcerated. One kid from out of state, with a minor offense, after completion of the program, had his head shaved, had to register, and his neighborhood received public alerts.

  7. I worked with incarcerated j juvenile sex offenders in Minnesota from 2000 to 2009. I recall a sixteen year old from Delaware who had one incident of inappropriate touch. Delaware contracted with us. He completed the program. Upon his return home, his head was shaved, he was registered and the neighborhood he was to reside in was publically alerted.

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  10. You missed something Calypso. The Sex Offender Registration Laws are just the foot in the door to doing exactly your caveat—registering all undesirables in society. There are now registrations for known gang members in California; persons convicted of violent crimes in Kansas; persons convicted of meth related crimes in Colorado; persons convicted of arson in Ohio, etc., etc. The government imposes these types of laws on the most hated and indefensible to establish precedent, then expands the laws to apply to more of the citizens gradually. Eventually, I predict there will be online registries for persons convicted of domestic violence based on the reasoning the public needs to know someone has previously been violent, along with every other category of crime.

  11. What the problem is we are trying to legislate sexual behavior with laws that was deemed for deranged serial rapist that is overreaching to anything to get a vote by selling sensationalism lies and the monster mentality. These same law makers including Bush Clinton Obama are guiltily of sexual harassment, , child molestation, rape and incest

  12. Lets not just cherry pick children on the registry. Adults are humans as well and suffer just as much – if not more so – from Megan’s law and the AWA.

    Circumventing anyone’s privacy, security and safety just so some stranger Online can gain unfettered access and free rein over your life? That is HUMAN subjugation and oppression.

    • Thank you for also bringing adults into this conversation. There are those adults that are,mislabeled as well,and suffer life long,consequences sir you being assessed fairly on their risk level of reoffending.

  13. Not exactly a bulls-eye, but close. Change most instances of the phrase “can be” to “are” and apply the reasoning to all sex offenders, not just juveniles, and the article would be 98% accurate. The Adam Walsh Act was signed by Clinton, not Bush. While Bush may have signed the amendment to the AWA that allowed for the registration of juveniles, but it’s pretty doubtful that Congress would have written those provisions as a bill on its own, and more unlikely that Bush would have approved such a bill.

    Most of the facts and assertions made here have been known for years, going back to the earliest opponents of the public registry the first time it was proposed in New Jersey. It just wasn’t publicized as much, and still isn’t. Lawmakers have the data and publicly discount it. Even lawmakers that acknowledge the realities in private won’t move to abolish the registry despite being the only sensible solution because they will be immediately branded as “sex offender friendly” by political opponents and the sensationalist media, resulting in the current climate of attempting to fix the solution without fixing the already grossly overstated problem.

    Last September, Montrose County, Colorado has (reluctantly) pulled its public registry pending appeal of a successful federal constitutional challenge by three registrants there, one of them convicted as a juvenile (article linked below), though they continue to report registration data to the state’s public registry. To date, there has been no upsurge of sex offenses by/against children or of sex offenders flooding into the county, as feared by some.

    Personally, I would like to see that county be excused from the state’s public registry for a year so that the purported necessity and effectiveness of the registry can be compared to a constituency without it. Keeping an open mind, but reasonably certain the end result would support abolishing the registry en totem. Sadly, even then it is doubtful that any legislator (federal, state, or local) will attempt the only sensible solution and continue the path of political expedience.

  14. I am glad you said everything you said. 5hank you for a solud article.
    Couple of things I wish you had included:
    1. A list of the states that do not put juveniles on the registry….could be useful info for a family trying to escape the registry.
    2. Acknowledgement that the registry is entirely bad and should be abolished.

  15. Families have to move, kids not being welcomed back to school….you gotta ask yourself: Did any of these adults go through adolescence?
    I’m truly sick of this term “inappropriate sexual behavior” when it comes to issues of TYPICAL AND NATURAL HUMAN DEVELOPMENT AND CURIOSITY OF THEIR SEXUALITY!!
    From the examples in this article, NOTHING was so inappropriate that it requires LEGAL ACTION to step in.
    You’d angelic daughter sends her naked pics to a boy she likes…. BE A PARENT AND PUNISH the little “angel who can do no wrong” and also in regards to that example, the teacher had NO BUSINESS GOING THROUGH SOMEONE ELSE’S PHONE! It’s a TEACHER, not an agent of law enforcement! I would have sued that teacher and the school for invasion of privacy.

    This sex fear frenzy has got to stop! Just STOP!!!
    Sex is a natural and normal human function and interest. NO ONE is going to stop it unless we want to also stop the human race from ever procreating.

  16. I am a parent who know just how many laws there are out there that can and will put any person in our US jails and prisons. I’m shocked and apauled that organizations like Adam Walsh and Megan’s Law have pushed through over 45 Sex offender laws and rising from the 8 Sex offender laws in 1997 under the pretenses of protecting kids and since 1997 these laws have done so much harm to the families, which include children, that love and support their family member who ever they are that have been prosecuted by these Sex offense laws. As a mother I am more worried now that my child whether 14 or 44 will do something stupid and end up in our jails, prisons and on our sex offense registry more than I ever feared them becoming a victim of a sex offense. Please wake up and realize US citizens and parents that with over 800K people on the registry 20% of them placed on the registry as a minor, it could be your family member next.

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  18. Absolutely and totally right on target, and every word about the ineffectiveness of SORN applies to all who have sexually offended, not just youth.

    Youth should never be labeled sexual offenders in the first place. Every generation of children has pushed the limits of appropriate sexual behavior specific to the standards of the time, and a few, like now, have committed more serious anti-social acts. Never before have they been thus labeled, and somehow they — we — all grew up without destroying the society.

  19. Right you are. Registration is ineffective and ruins lives. Not only that of the registrant, but those around them.

    But NO ONE should have to register as a sex offender. Not unless all criminals have to….