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Do children ever belong on sex offender registries? Part I

Most crimes come with a standard punishment for offenders who are convicted. You serve that sentence, handle any related matters (fines and parole) and then return to life as a member of the general public - at least that's how it works in theory.

But for individuals convicted of sex crimes, the punishment can last for decades (or even a lifetime) after the sentence has been served. The reason for this is simple: sex offender registries. In the era of tough-on-crime hysteria in the 1980s and '90s, states passed increasingly draconian sex crime laws. These included blanket sentencing measures that required a huge group of offenders to register as sex offenders. Many of these "dangerous sex offenders" were children at the time of conviction.

How do children end up on sex offender registries? It can happen in a number of ways, according to a recent New Yorker article. First, there are the "crimes" that were crimes in name only. A good example would be teenage couples who sext nude pictures to one another. Adults discover these pictures, and both teens are charged with manufacturing and distributing child pornography. Each teenager is considered both the victim and the perpetrator of the crime.

Then there are those cases where overzealous schools and police departments pursue sex crimes charges against children when their behavior, while inappropriate, had no sexual intent whatsoever. The article shares the story of a woman who was prosecuted for "indecency with a child" when she was just 10 years old. As a prank, she had pulled down the pants of a male classmate. Her name was put on the state's sex offender database for 10 years.

There is a third group of children charged with sex crimes whose behaviors were not innocent. They committed what most people would agree are sex offenses, almost always with children their own age or younger. But should these individuals be placed on a sex offender registry? And if so, should they remain on the registry long after becoming adults?

Juvenile offenders are generally very capable of reform. In fact, it often happens as a product of natural maturation. Should these individuals be branded for life as "sex offenders" for acts they committed as children?

Please check back next week as we continue our discussion.

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