Five Things Child Clients Need to Know About Sex Offender Registration Laws

Riya Saha Shah, American Bar Association •
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Which offenses require registration. In 42 states, there are specific offenses that require youth to register as sex offenders when adjudicated delinquent in juvenile court. Lawyers should advise their clients prior to an adjudication of delinquency whether their offense will require them to register as a sex offender. This information must be considered prior to entering an admission so the child is fully informed of the consequence of their adjudication and the plea is entered knowingly. Attorneys for children must also advise their clients of what it means to be placed on the sex offender registry, including whether they are required by law to notify their community of their registration status. Twenty-eight states include youth in their community notification requirements for registered sex offenders.

How long they must register as a sex offender. The length of sex offender registration varies from state to state and is based upon the youth’s age at the time of the offense, and the offense for which they were adjudicated. A child may be required to register for a term of two years, ten years, fifteen years, until they reach a statutorily designated age, or for their entire lifetime. Twenty-one states require at least some youth to register for life. Children’s attorneys should know the law and explain to their clients how long their term of registration will be.

What their reporting requirements will be. In addition to an initial registration, all states require verification and reporting with some periodicity. Generally, youth are required to report to their state registration site once every 90 days, 6 months, or annually. When they report, they are required to verify their registration information, submit new photographs, and update any changes to their registration. In many jurisdictions, in addition to the periodic reporting requirements, youth are also required to update their registration information within a specified time (3–5 days) of any changes. For example, in some states, if the child changes where they park their car, they would need to update their registration information within three days or be in violation of their state’s registration law. When youth are homeless or housing insecure, their registration requirements are even more stringent. Homeless youth must report and verify their registration information—including the places where they may be sleeping at night despite often not knowing themselves—in most jurisdictions every thirty days to ensure the state police are aware of their whereabouts. Children’s attorneys should advise their clients of the reporting requirements for their registration.

The consequences that come with registering as a sex offender. Individuals placed on sex offender registries face barriers to education, employment, housing, and travel. Many states have statutory provisions restricting employment opportunities for individuals on sex offender registries. Likewise, 10 states impose residency restrictions on youth on registries, including prohibitions from residing within a certain distance of a school or church. Other states impose restrictions related to whom the registered youth may live with, which could prohibit youth from residing with siblings or other family members who are children. When an individual is not in compliance with the registration laws in their state, they may face felony or misdemeanor liability and incarceration. Thirty-one states impose felony convictions on youth who are noncompliant with registration laws. In addition to the statutorily mandated consequences of registration, youth who register as sex offenders face psychological trauma and stigma from registration. Children’s attorneys should advise their clients of the barriers they may face as registrants and connect them to services and support if possible.

Whether and how they can be removed from the registry. In some states, youth who are placed on sex offender registries may be removed after some time has passed or pursuant to a court order. Fourteen states require youth to register for the full term of their registration. In eight states, youth are removed from the registry after they become adults, either at age 18, 21, or 25. In other states, youth are permitted to petition the court for their removal from the registry after 25 years have passed. In many of those states, the petition may only be granted if the individual has had no subsequent criminal charges, adjudications, or convictions, including any charges for failure to register or comply with registration requirements. Given the stringent nature of the registration laws and the challenge in navigating their complexities, this possibility of removal after 25 years is illusory for most young people. However, children’s attorneys should advise their clients of whether they can be removed from the registry and whether the removal is automatic, or if they will need to petition for removal with the assistance of an attorney.

For detailed information on your state, see Juvenile Law Center, Labeled for Life: A Review of Youth Sex Offender Registration Laws (August 2020).

For more information on how sex offender registration harms children, see Ten Ways Youth Sex Offender Registration Harms Kids, American Bar Association (December 2018).

Riya Saha Shah is the managing director at Juvenile Law Center in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. 

About the Expert

Riya Saha Shah is a Senior Managing Director of Juvenile Law Center. Riya began her career at Juvenile Law Center in 2005 as a Sol and Helen Zubrow Fellow in Children’s Law. In her role as a Senior Managing Director, Riya serves on the organization’s Management Team and is a leader in Juvenile Law Center’s programmatic justice work. Since the beginning of her legal career, Riya has engaged in litigation, policy advocacy, and amicus efforts to reduce the harm of the juvenile and criminal legal system.

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