(Washington, DC) – Harsh public registration laws often punish youth sex offenders for life and do little to protect public safety, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today. A web of federal and state laws apply to people under 18 who have committed any of a wide range of sex offenses, from the very serious, like rape, to the relatively innocuous, such as public nudity.
The 111-page report, “Raised on the Registry: The Irreparable Harm of Placing Children on Sex Offender Registries in the US,” details the harm public registration laws cause for youth sex offenders. The laws, which can apply for decades or even a lifetime and are layered on top of time in prison or juvenile detention, require placing offenders’ personal information on online registries, often making them targets for harassment, humiliation, and even violence. The laws also severely restrict where, and with whom, youth sex offenders may live, work, attend school, or even spend time.
“Of course anyone responsible for a sexual assault should be held accountable,” said Nicole Pittman, Soros Senior Justice Advocacy Fellow at Human Rights Watch and author of the report. “But punishment should fit both the offense and the offender, and placing children who commit sex offenses on a public registry – often for life – can cause more harm than good.”
States and the federal government should exempt people who commit sex offenses when they are under age 18 from public registration laws because the laws violate youth offenders’ basic rights. Available research indicates that youth sex offenders are among the least likely to reoffend.
During 16 months of investigation, Human Rights Watch interviewed 281 youth sex offenders, whose median age at offense was 15, across 20 states, as well as hundreds of offenders’ family members, defense attorneys, prosecutors, judges, law enforcement officials, experts on the topic, and victims of child-on-child sexual assault.
“I’m a ghost,” said “Dominic G.,” of San Antonio, Texas, who was required to register for an offense he committed when he was 13. “I can’t put my name on a lease, I never receive mail. No one cares if I am alive. In fact, I think they would prefer me dead.”
Throughout the United States, youth sex offenders must comply with a complex array of legal requirements that permeate virtually every aspect of their lives. Under registration laws, they must register with law enforcement, providing their name, home address, place of employment, school address, a current photograph, and other personal information. Under community notification laws, the police make this information accessible to the public, typically via the Internet.
And under residency restriction laws, youth sex offenders are prohibited from living within a designated distance – typically 500 to 2,500 feet – of places where children gather, such as schools, playgrounds, parks, and even bus stops.
There are no comprehensive statistics for the number of people under 18 in the US who are subject to these registration laws, because the national statistics generally do not separate youth sex offenders from others. Each state, US territory, and federally recognized Indian Tribe has its own set of sex offender laws, which can vary considerably, and a number of federal laws also contain requirements affecting youth sex offenders.
In 2011, the last year for which there are complete statistics, the total number of sex offenders nationally was 747,000.
The majority of youth sex offenders interviewed by Human Rights Watch were placed on a registry between 2007 and 2011, but since some state registration laws have been in place for nearly two decades, large numbers of people in the US who began registering as children are now well into adulthood. Their offenses can range from heinous crimes like rape, to consensual sex between children, to relatively innocuous actions like public nudity.
“Many people assume that anyone listed on the sex offender registry must be a rapist or a pedophile,” Pittman said. “But most states spread the net much more widely.”
The report documents the numerous ways in which youth sex offenders are harmed by registration, community notification, and residency restriction laws. Youth sex offenders are stigmatized and publicly humiliated, often causing them to become depressed and even suicidal. They may become targets of harassment and vigilante violence.
Barred from spending time near a school, much less in one, they often struggle to continue their education. Many have a hard time finding – and keeping – a job, or a home. And if they miss a deadline to register, youth sex offenders can find themselves in prison, often for lengthy terms.
Sex offender laws are designed to protect communities from sex offenses by helping police monitor past offenders. But including youth sex offenders on registries assumes that they are highly likely to reoffend, which is not the case. Numerous studies estimate the recidivism rate among children who commit sexual offenses to be between 4 and 10 percent, compared with a 13 percent rate for adult sex offenders and a national rate of 45 percent for all crimes.
The laws further assume that children are essentially younger versions of adults. However, psychological and neuroscientific research confirms that children, including teenagers, act more irrationally and immaturely than adults and should not be held to the same standard of culpability. Likewise, research indicates that children are more likely to respond to rehabilitation and treatment.
Furthermore, requiring a wide range of sex offenders to register overburdens law enforcement with large numbers of people to monitor, undifferentiated by the public safety threat they pose.
Human Rights Watch believes that no one should be put on registries for sex offenses committed when they were children, absent a judicial determination that the specific individual in question poses a high risk of reoffending; in such cases, they should be put on registries accessible only to law enforcement, and subject to removal when registration is no longer needed. In all other cases, states and the federal government should exempt youth sex offenders from any registration, community notification, and residency requirements.
“Painting all sex offenders with the same broad brush stymies law enforcement’s attempts to focus on the most dangerous offenders and defeats what every parent knows about how children act and how they mature,” Pittman said. “Exempting youth from harsh registration laws would both respect their rights and ability to change and improve public safety.”
The following are quotes from youth sex offenders and others interviewed by Human Rights Watch or contained in documents Human Rights Watch reviewed. Names of registered youth sex offenders and their family members have been abbreviated or replaced with pseudonyms to protect their privacy.
“I live in a general sense of hopelessness, and combat suicidal thoughts almost daily due to the life sentence