The unforeseen consequences of the morality police: making children criminals for life.
Put on a sex registry for the offense of public nudity as a minor. Harassed by neighbors out of a home and banned from a homeless shelter because of an offense committed at age 15.
The New York-based research group Human Rights Watch issued an extensive report Wednesday on the life-shattering consequences of putting minors on sex registries for offenses — sometimes shockingly mild offenses — for the rest of their lives.
Filled with devastating stories of teens and young adults unable to put offenses behind them, the rights group’s report is called “Raised on the Registry: The Irreparable Harm of Placing Children on Sex Offender Registries in the U.S.”
The report is the product of a 16-month investigation into 581 cases and interviews with 281 sex offenders — median age 15 — in 20 states. Prosecutors, defense attorneys, child sexuality experts and victims of “child on child” sexual assault were also interviewed. The investigation explores how a burgeoning national web of laws in various states requiring constant registration and public disclosure of offenders’ identities has affected the lives of young offenders long after time served or rehabilitation. Some on registries have killed themselves, even before reaching adulthood.
The report begins with Jacob C., who was 11 years old when convicted of one count of sexual misconduct in Michigan for touching, not penetrating, his sister’s genitals. He was not allowed to live in a home with other children, was eventually put into foster care and was placed on a sex registry that was made public when he turned 18. He struggled to graduate from high school, and was shunned because of his registration status. And when he enrolled in college, he said, campus police followed him everywhere. He dropped out.
Now 26, the report says, Jacob’s life continues to be defined and limited by a conviction at age 11.
Another case in the report: “In 2004, in Western Pennsylvania, a 15-year-old girl was charged with manufacturing and disseminating child pornography for having taken nude photos of herself and (posting) them on the internet. She was charged as an adult, and as of 2012 was facing registration for life.”
Sex offender laws, the report says, “that trigger registration requirements for children began proliferating in the United States during the late 1980s and early 1990s. They subject youth offenders to registration for crimes ranging from public nudity and touching another child’s genitalia over clothing to very serious violent crimes like rape.”
Registries can also include “people who have committed offenses like public urination, indecent exposure (such as streaking across a college campus), and other more relatively innocuous offenses.”
The Human Rights Watch report acknowledged that registration laws were designed to protect the public from offenders, and that they are based on assumptions that offenders are likely to violate again.
“But including youth sex offenders on registries assumes that they are highly likely to reoffend, which is not the case,” the report says. “Numerous studies estimate the recidivism rate among children who commit sexual offenses to 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 report was prepared by Nicole Pittman, a national expert on the application of sex offender registration laws who was an attorney at the Defender Association of Philadelphia. She specialized in child sexual assault cases and registries, and has provided testimony to Congress and state legislatures on the subject.
The report calls current registry laws “an overbroad policy of questionable effectiveness” that leaves the public often unable to discern who on a registry is actually dangerous.