Children Should Not Be On Sex Offender Registries

Juvenile Law Center,

Photo via estenh on Flickr

In recent years, states have passed harsh public registration laws that punish children while doing little to protect public safety. Many of these laws have been enacted in response to a federal law, the Sex Offender Registration and Notification Act (SORNA), which targets adult sex offenders, but also includes children. Juvenile Law Center has long argued that these laws are misguided. A new, comprehensive report supports our view.

Human Rights Watch today issued an extensive report that documents the harm children suffer when unnecessarily placed on sex offender registries. Juvenile Law Center and Human Rights Watch are urging state and federal governments to exempt children and youth (under age 18) from public sex offender registration laws. While recognizing the seriousness of sexual abuse, the report demonstrates that child registration laws do not add to public safety, are contradictory to research on offending by children and adolescents, violate youth offenders’ basic rights, and do far more harm than good. 

The report, Raised on the Registry: The Irreparable Harm of Placing Children on Sex Offender Registries, tells the stories of 281 youth who were placed on a sex offender registry for offenses they committed when they were between eight and 18 years old, as well as hundreds of offenders' family members, attorneys, experts, and victims of child-on-child sexual assault. Written by Soros Justice Fellow Nicole Pittman, Raised on the Registry confirms what common sense dictates about registration of children – they are stigmatizing and result in harmful consequences, including restrictions on residence, interruptions and exclusions from education and employment, and psychological harm sometimes ending in suicide.

 Registration laws are based on faulty assumptions about juvenile sexual offending.  Research conclusively demonstrates that children are unlike adult sex offenders and are not on a trajectory of future offending.  Children are not predators.  If they commit another crime, their new offense is rarely a sex offense.  

 Despite the evidence, a majority of states now subject children to sex offender registration and community notification in a misguided attempt to protect public safety. Children are required to report to probation offices every few months, provide new photographs as they age or change appearance, and inform law enforcement every time they change motor vehicles, jobs or place of residence. Even a simple vacation can trigger an obligation to report. Failure to follow the letter of registration laws results in further criminal justice system involvement for failure to comply, which itself is a new crime that carries a mandatory prison sentence in many states. These children wear a scarlet letter.

The Human Rights Watch report is an effort to align public policy with what we know about child and adolescent development. States are permanently and inexcusably labeling children whose development remains a work in progress. 

Juvenile Law Center commends Human Rights Watch for its work on this issue. This report will be an invaluable resource in identifying the harm of registration to policymakers, courts, and the public. 

For more information about harmful juvenile sex offender registration, see our recent blog post. 

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