Last week, we began a discussion about how children can end up listed on sex offender registries. Plenty of these cases involve actions that most would say are not sex crimes – sexting, consensual sex between minors, etc.
To be sure, there are also cases in which children do commit sexual violations of others, often kids their own age or younger. While it may be appropriate to prosecute these individuals in juvenile court, is it appropriate or even helpful to name these children on sex offender registries?
As a recent New Yorker article explains, sex offender registries were originally designed to be private lists used by law enforcement agencies. The idea was that if a child was abducted or a rape occurred, the police would have at least some leads on where to begin the investigation. A law passed in 1996 required that all states had to make their once-private registries public.
This has caused significant problems for former offenders who were put on the list as adults. But when kids get put on sex offender registries, an offense they committed as a child often defines the rest of their childhood and much of their adult lives.
An argument is often made that releasing the names of convicted sex offenders makes the public safer (although statistics do not support this claim). But can that argument be made about children convicted of sexual offenses? Does the public deserve to know, despite the fact that most minors are already being supervised and monitored by their own families?
Moreover, statistics show that the “once and offender, always an offender” mantra is not true of children. In up to 95 percent of cases, youths who are charged with a sex offense never commit another sex offense. Indeed, some young offenders were motivated more by curiosity or ignorance about sex than by the desire for sexual gratification. Depending on the home they grew up in, they may not have learned appropriate boundaries as far as touching someone else.
Being on a sex offender registry often makes it difficult or impossible to find a job, a place to live and to pursue higher education. Offenders who might otherwise be able to live a perfectly normal (and law-abiding) life are turned into pariahs in their own communities. In light of what we understand about sex offenses committed by children, is it appropriate to brand them with this lifelong stigma?