Report: It’s time to take juveniles off the sex offender lists

A new report by the Illinois Juvenile Justice Commission takes aim at the disturbingly common practice of forcing juvenile sex offenders to comply with sex offender registries, often for life. Its conclusion: “Remove young people from the state’s counter-productive sex offender registry . . . There is no persuasive evidence that subjecting youth to registries improves public safety or reduces risks of future offending. The research does not indicate registries repair harm to victims.”

Among the findings:

  • “The vast majority of these youth have not acted in response to a deviant sexual arousal or a focused intent to harm others, which are considered key risk factors for future sexual offending. Instead, most youth sexual offending has roots in developmental issues such as immaturity, developmental delays, deficits in social skills and difficulties coping with prior sexual abuse. Research on adolescent brain development shows that youth are still gaining the capacity to make decisions, assess risk, control impulses, make moral judgments, consider future consequences, evaluate rewards and punishment, and react to positive and negative feedback.”
  • “Youth who sexually offend are very unlikely to become adult sexual offenders. Most youth sexual offending involves a family member or a person known to the youth and is not predatory. Treatment does work, and different types of interventions have been found to be effective in changing the harmful behavior of youth who sexually offend. The vast majority of these youth do not repeat their harmful conduct.”
  • “Regardless of their individual circumstances, risks, needs or strengths, youth adjudicated delinquent for a sexual offense are subject to a complex and expanding set of requirements and restrictions, which may include where they can live, what kind of job they can perform and whether they can attend their own children’s extracurricular school events. These carry lasting negative consequences for the offending youth. There is no persuasive evidence that placing youth on sex offender registries prevents reoffending, but the registry requirements can undermine the long-term well-being of victims, families, youth and communities.”
  • “As of December 4, 2013, there were 2,553 individuals on Illinois’ Sex Offender Registry as a result of being adjudicated delinquent as a juvenile for a sex offense. Of those, 1,783 (70 percent) are registered for life while the other 769 (30 percent) are required to register for 10 years. The number of individuals on the Illinois Sex Offender Registry as result of being adjudicated delinquent for a sexual offense as a juvenile has increased 28 percent since 2008. Although offenses during the study period fell by half, the number on the registry increased because few are ever removed.”
  • “Illinois is one of only 20 states placing juveniles on sex offender registries, regardless of the risk of reoffending, and Illinois is one of only nine states not excluding the youngest juveniles from that kind of broad registry requirement. In the rest of the country, 19 other states require registry for some juveniles but give courts some flexibility to determine which juveniles must register, and 11 states and the District of Columbia do not register juveniles unless they have been tried and convicted as adults.”

The Adam Walsh Child Safety Protection Act of 2006 requires states to put juveniles over the age of 14 on public sex offender registries if they (a) commit a sex offense equivalent to or worse than aggravated sexual assault against a victim under the age of 12, or (b) commit any sex-related offense for which they were tried and convicted as an adult. The federal government can’t actually force the states to adopt those guidelines, but it can withhold funding if they don’t. And that turns out to be a pretty powerful incentive.  The law nudged more states to abandon the practice of sealing juvenile records, on the theory that kids can be reformed, and moved toward trying more kids as adults, and imposing lifelong consequences on them. And of course, some states have laws that go quite a bit further than that.

Most of the academic research shows that sex offender registries don’t have much of a deterrent effect, even for adults. They aren’t even all that good at keeping adult offenders away from children. There is less research on juveniles, but what’s out there (see summaries of the research here, plus this report from Human Rights Watch) suggests just what the Illinois Juvenile Justice Commission found —that most kids put on the registries aren’t dangerous and pose little risk to reoffend, that registries don’t deter sex crimes and that requiring kids to register well into their adults lives is a good way to ensure their failure.

Of course, little of this was researched before Congress passed the Walsh Act. That’s part of the problem with the reactionary practice of naming laws after crime victims. It’s a strong signal that the law’s sponsors are more interested appealing to emotion — to “cracking down” — than in making sound public policy.

Radley Balko blogs about criminal justice, the drug war and civil liberties for The Washington Post. He is the author of the book "Rise of the Warrior Cop: The Militarization of America's Police Forces."
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