Guest Blog by Nicole Pittman and Eli Lehrer
Jason (whose name has been changed) was 14 when he met his first girlfriend, 13-year-old Tianna. After a few months of dating, Tianna’s mom walked in on the couple having oral sex. She called the police and Jason was arrested.
Because California law treats any kind of sexual activity with someone under 14 as child molestation, a juvenile court adjudicated Jason delinquent for lewd and lascivious conduct. Even after serving time in juvenile detention, Jason must register as a sex offender for the rest of his life. Now 32, despite earning a college degree, Jason can’t find work, suffers from depression and is homeless in San Francisco.
Jason’s story is not unique. Starting in the early nineties, state legislatures began adopting sex-offense registration and notification laws, many of which included young people. Then, in 2006, the Adam Walsh Act made it a federal requirement to register youth for certain offenses. Today, 40 states register kids, sometimes as young as 8 years old.
Many kids are required register for normative, experiential behavior: playing doctor, de-pantsing a classmate, streaking, sending nude “selfies” or Romeo and Juliet romances. Minors do also commit serious harm, but, even in those instances, research shows registration does nothing to prevent child sexual abuse or make communities safer. Instead, it imposes enormous societal costs and undermines the rehabilitative intentions of the juvenile justice system.
Young people on the registry are marginalized by “child safety zones,” unable to return to school or their homes. As adults they aren’t able to find work, often end up homeless and 1 in 5 attempt suicide. Meanwhile, survivors, who are often family members, also become targets of vigilante violence and never receive the services they need to heal.
And many of those forced to register have been victimized themselves. A 2013 Human Rights Watch report, Raised on the Registry, which one of us wrote, found out of a sample of 500 people placed on the registry as kids more than 90 percent had been in the child welfare system at the time of their arrest. We’re starting to gather information that suggests not only that a disproportionate number of children involved in the welfare system end up labeled as sex offenders but that the practice also unfairly targets youth of color and LGBTQ kids.
It’s important, though, to highlight the upsides to this otherwise tragic error in our country’s juvenile policies. In addition to inspiring stories of resilience in the face of hardship, youth have shown a remarkable dedication to positive self-change. More than 97 percent never commit another sex offense with very little intervention. And after decades of going almost unmentioned, even among criminal justice reformers, the idea that children shouldn’t have to register is gaining mainstream traction. Within the past year, The New Yorker, New York Times, NPR, The Hill and Aspen Ideas Festival, among others, have covered the toll of registering kids; the MacArthur Foundation identified it as a top priority in juvenile justice reform; and advocates dedicated to ending child sexual abuse, survivors and people on both the left and right have begun calling for change. Youth registration is no longer the untouchable third rail subject it once was.
But even though as a country we are now talking about youth sex-offense registration, there are still very few actively working to eliminate the practice. The two of us — one the president of R Street, a conservative think tank, and the other the director of the Center on Youth Registration Reform at Impact Justice — have pioneered efforts to amend policy. We are proud to report we’ve made measurable progress guiding lawmakers toward change through education, research and model policy. A few of the major milestones:
- The Federal Advisory Committee on Juvenile Justice has recommended that children be removed from sex-offender registries.
- The Department of Justice’s Sex Offender Sentencing, Monitoring, Apprehending, Registering, and Tracking Office, which is responsible for bringing states into compliance with the Sex Offender Registration and Notification Act, has proposed supplemental guidelines that loosen state youth registration requirements by allowing jurisdictions to use discretion.
- The American Legislative Exchange Council is considering model policy relating to youth sex-offense registration, while the Liberty Education Forum and Log Cabin Republicans have likewise committed themselves to changing the laws.
- At least four congressional offices have expressed serious interest in introducing legislation to remove federal incentives to register children and several states are considering amending their laws.
While great strides have been made, we still have a lot to do. First on our agenda: amend the Adam Walsh Act to remove the mandate that states register minors. This is where working across the aisle is essential. Policy change requires educating legislators from all parties, forming bipartisan coalitions and writing op-eds with unlikely allies who otherwise might not agree on much. Even the two of us don’t see eye-to-eye on every aspect of the necessary reforms. The conservative among us thinks that it’s occasionally appropriate to try juveniles accused of sex offenses as adults and if found guilty require them to register. The other does not agree. But that doesn’t stop us from working together to end registration in the juvenile courts.
From there, we have to move on to the 40 states that currently register kids. This will require organizing coalitions in several target states at a time and conducting research that documents state statutes, youth registrant demographics, offenses and disparities, which initial glances suggest may be stark. We must also support lawmakers by changing the public narrative around youth sexual behavior, so they feel empowered to act without fear of losing their jobs.
Of course, while fostering compassion for youthful offenders is noble and can be an effective tool for influencing public opinion, it doesn’t reassure parents whose number one priority is protecting their kids. So, in many cases, the most convincing argument for removing children from registries is that it isn’t effective. It clutters registries and wastes valuable law enforcement resources that could otherwise go to policies that move us toward ending child sexual abuse.
There is no doubt that placing our children on registries was a grave mistake. The question now is how do we work together to tackle the hard work required to forge a new path forward. Because if we are ever going to succeed in ending child sexual abuse, finding the answer will require dedication, cooperation and courage.