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The predatory justice of juvenile sex-offender laws - The Vanderbilt Hustler: Opinion

The predatory justice of juvenile sex-offender laws

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Posted: Sunday, January 20, 2013 2:08 pm

When lawmakers crafted laws to combat sexual violence, they probably never expected that children as young as 10 would end up on public sex offender registries. Law enforcement probably never expected that they would have to notify neighbors that a 13-year-old sex offender lived nearby. Yet that is the reality of America’s sex offender registration laws: Though the judicial system tends to distinguish between youth and adult offenders, 35 states subject minors convicted of sex crimes to the same registration, notification and restrictions as adults. Seven states require juveniles to stay on the registry for life. These crimes aren’t always violent, either: A recent Human Rights Watch report notes that teens have found their way onto sex offender registries for benign acts like sexting, public urination and consensual sex with other teens.

In fact, 36 percent of all sex offenders who victimize children are themselves juveniles — and more than half of these juvenile offenders are 14 years old or younger, according to a recent study commissioned by the Department of Justice. It is understandable that laws should be created to curb sexual violence — but imposing the stigma of longtime and sometimes lifelong sex offender registration on juvenile offenders creates unnecessary harm both to them and their families. Juvenile offenders often experience emotional problems, difficulty securing employment, social ostracization and difficulties at school. There are, incredibly, cases of teens being barred from attending school due to their presence on sex offender registries because they sexted, the act of which the law considers child pornography. As adults, these offenders can expect restrictions on their residency, employment and mobility, and a significant minority will be fired, harassed, assaulted or even murdered because of their sex offender status.

Registration may also hinder crime rehabilitation of youth offenders. Depriving juvenile offenders of access to education, employment, religious services and healthy relationships — all common consequences of sex offender registration — could actually raise the probability that these children become lifelong delinquents. Unfortunately, registration requirements may deter families from reporting sex crimes committed by their child against a sibling for fear of the legal consequences, thus denying access to rehabilitative services.

Registration of juveniles has also been shown not to reduce sex crime. Studies by Elizabeth Letourneau of the University of South Carolina have found that registering juvenile offenders neither reduced overall rates of offenses nor reduced recidivism. This makes sense. It’s hard to argue, for example, that public safety was enhanced by the eviction of a 26-year-old married woman from her home in Georgia because a daycare center opened nearby. Her crime was that she had oral sex with a 15-year-old when she was 17.

Moreover, juvenile offenders are distinct from their adult counterparts. Children who commit sex crimes, even violent ones, usually do so as a way of “acting out,” not because they eroticize aggression. Consequently, psychologists have found that rehabilitation is very effective for juvenile sex offenders, and very few juvenile offenders reoffend as adults. Most studies find the recidivism rate of juvenile sex offenders to be less than 5 percent.

Sex offenders deserve special opprobrium in our society. But we shouldn’t let our visceral disgust with sex crimes bar us from making sensible public policy. Children are not miniature adults, and the law should not treat them that way.

— Michael Zoorob

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  • patricia win posted at 10:27 pm on Sat, Feb 2, 2013.

    suetiggers Posts: 1

    'The system is broken. It’s overwhelmed and I think the public is starting to realize that.
    You can’t paint sex offenders with a broad brush.' (John Walsh, father of Adam Walsh)

    There are over 763,000 men, women& children (as young as 8 &10 in some states) across the nation required to register.The "crimes" range from urinating in public, sexting, exposure, false accusations by a soon-to-be ex-wife, angry girlfriend, or spiteful student, viewing abusive or suggestive images of anyone 18 yrs old or younger, solicitation, Romeo *Juliet consensual sexual dating relationships, rape& incest.The registry is a way to make parents "feel good!" Now if you multiply 763,000 by 3 or 4 family members of the registrant there r over 2,000,000 folks suffering the collateral damage caused by the registries.Families r harassed, beaten, threatened, forced 2 lose jobs, have signs placed in their yards& lose friends& family.How is the family supposed 2survive& become functional again under these conditions?Heres more food 4 thought Many of the states contract the on-going maintenance of their registry to a company called Watch Systems.But, you could vote to keep the 763,000 men,women&children incarcerated at approximately $26,000 per person per year. How about a reasoned approach?

  • Jay Whitmire posted at 1:42 pm on Mon, Jan 21, 2013.

    LJW67 Posts: 1

    The facts are that sending most sex offenders to prison is a waste of money. Juvenile and adult alike respond very well to treatment. Prison costs around $30/inmate/year, and the best treatment would costs around $12/person/year.

    Sending these people to prison, with no real treatment, then letting them out in a few years is just making the situation worse. Adult offenders were once juveniles who probably had a lot of problems to work through. The required treatment is partially effective at best. Real psychological treatment would costs less and be much more effective. The other part is, treating one person in the family is pointless. Usually the entire family is dysfunctional. Healing the family both prevents future offenses and allows for someone to make a mistake, pay for it, then come out a better person for it.

    No one can really get their life straight while being publicly shamed and not allowed to make a living, etc. Children have it worse because they may not even get an education as a result. It would be less cruel to put everybody on the registry to death.

    I've seen a story where a 7 year old is on the registry for life for playing doctor with a 5 year old. If we can't have a 7 year old in the military, buying alcohol, or signing contracts, how on earth are they able to "know" right from wrong? This is just throwing kids away. I thought we has passed that era in the US, but we haven't.

    The other thing is that so much attention is paid to sex offenses, other forms of abuse get very little attention. 10-23% of children are abused everyday, mostly emotional abuse and neglect. However, it goes one because the public is convinced their children only have a stranger to fear.

    In reality, 98% of all child abuses are from family, friends, and trusted adults. You should teach your children to be cautious, but not scare them to death!

  • Lois Marshall posted at 1:12 pm on Mon, Jan 21, 2013.

    LAMarshall11 Posts: 1

    Kudos to the author of this article. While some of the facts in this article could be disputed, there is no dispute with the fact that juveniles are more amenable to rehabilitation than those over 25 years old or so. That's why we have a separate juvenile justice system, at least in theory. Why make it more difficult for young people to become productive members of society, instead of making it likely that they will become life-long criminals?

    The fact is that youths have an even lower recidivism for sexual offenses once treated than adults (under 3% for juveniles and under 5% for adults according to most studies when treated with counseling, especially of the empathy-based sort).

    Putting someone not yet an adult on the sex offender registry is certainly bad for everyone.

  • Vanilla Bean posted at 10:15 am on Mon, Jan 21, 2013.

    bean Posts: 1

    "Sex offenders deserve special opprobrium in our society." - Really?

    What if the girl in the example had been a day over 18? She would no longer be a minor and would be deserving of being treated like a monster for the rest of her life?

    What about the college student who is found with photos of nude minors (just under 18) on his hard drive? Second class citizen until death?

    What about the 19 year old high school senior who ends up marrying his sophomore girl friend and has four children with her but can never take those kids to school or the park and is, because of this life long scorn, unable to find employment and provide for his children?

    What about the drunk guy who slaps a woman on the rear in a crowded bar? What about the older guy who meets a minor in a bar where she gained entry with a fake ID? Knowing everything about these people enhances public safety?

    Then what about the murderer? The wife beater? The drug dealer? The (violent) child abuser? The thief? The burglar? The drunk driver!!! They are okay to be forgiven?


    Kudos for tackling this issue and attempting a rational analysis where emotion typically rules, but this one may be worthy of more thought and another column.