(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
– Christian W., who was required to register as a sex offender for an offense committed at age 14. Tulsa, Oklahoma.
“Under the law at the time, he was looking at being put on the public registry when he turned 18. His picture, address and information on the Web…. He just couldn’t bear it.”
– Julia L., mother of Nathan L., who was convicted of a sex offense at 12 and committed suicide at 17. Grand Rapids, Michigan.
“Everyone in the community knew he was on the sex offender registry, it didn’t matter to them that he was removed…. [T]he damage was already done. You can’t un-ring the bell.”
– Elizabeth M., mother of Noah M., who was convicted of a sex offense at 12 and committed suicide at 17, after being removed from the registry in Michigan. Flint, Michigan.
“Suicide [among children placed on sex offender registries] is a possibility … even predictable.”
– David S. Prescott, a social worker and expert on treatment strategies for youth sex offenders.
“A member of the community made flyers that said ‘Beware – Sex Offender in the Neighborhood.’ The flyers, with my grade school picture, offense, and address, were posted all over the place.”
– Nicholas T., placed on the registry at age 16. Portland, Oregon.
“A few months after [Max] went on the registry the local newspaper ran a Halloween story entitled ‘Know where the Monsters are Hiding,’ warning families to beware of the registered sex offenders in the neighborhood when taking their little ones out to go trick-or-treating. The article listed all the sex offenders in our town. Max’s name and address was listed.”
– Bruce W., father of a youth sex offender who started registering at 10. Weatherford, Texas.
“The police always expect you are the worst of the worst sex offenders and so they treat you that way. Most of them look down on you as if you are the scum of the earth.”
– Elijah B., placed on the registry at age 16. Houston, Texas.
“My son’s life was ruined before he even turned 18 years old. Due to the burden of registration my son dropped out of school, he is afraid to leave the house, and he cannot get a job interview. He has not committed any new crimes yet this is holding him back from becoming a good member of society.”
– Tony K., father of a child placed on the registry at 17. Kansas City, Missouri.
“Once while attempting to register my address, a police officer refused to give me the paperwork and instead stated, ‘We’re just taking your kind out back and shooting them.’”
– Maya R., placed on the registry for an offense committed at age 10. Howell, Michigan.
“It makes people very angry. My brother, who looks like me, was once harassed and nearly beaten to death by a drunk neighbor who thought he was me.”
– Isaac E., who started registering at 12. Spokane, Washington.
“One time a man from one of those cars yelled ‘child molester’ at me.” A week later several bullets were fired from a car driving by. “The bullets went through the living room window as my family and me watched T.V.”
– Camilo F., registrant since age 14. Gainesville, Florida.
“I was in the [school] parking lot and this truck drove by and started throwing beer bottles at me. I had to run inside. They yelled, ‘Get out of our school, you child molester! I wish I could kill you!’”
– Joshua G., placed on the registry for an offense committed at age 12. Dallas, Texas.
“Neighbors harassed our family. We later found out that one of the neighbors shot our family dog.”
– Jasmine A., mother of Zachary S., who has been on the registry since age 11. Dallas, Texas.
“For sex offenders, our mistake is forever available to the world to see. There is no redemption, no forgiveness. You are never done serving your time. There is never a chance for a fresh start. You are finished. I wish I was executed, because my life is basically over.”
– Austin S., who started registering at age 14. Denham Springs, Louisiana.
“My ten years of registration was supposed to end on September 27, 2012. It is now 2013 and I am still on the state website and all those other registration sites. I feel like it will never end.”
– Diego G., placed on the registry at age 10. Houston, Texas.
“Because of sex offender restrictions my family had to be divided up. I could not live with children. My father stayed in our house with my younger brother. My mother and me moved in with my grandparents two hours away.”
– Sebastian S., youth sex offender who started registering at age 10. Laredo, Texas.
“I worry about my two little children, ages 4 and 2, having to live in a publicly identified house and having to pay this lifelong price for something that happened years before they were born. I want to be involved in their lives but I also want them to be able to live free to be who they are without having to carry such a burden.”
– Jerry M., who started registering at 11. Wilmington, Delaware.
“With parents often the targets of blame for the sins of their children, parents of sex offenders can experience just as much fear, shame, and paranoia as their children.
– David Prescott, a social worker and expert on treatment strategies for youth sex offenders.
“I have found a few places to rent but as soon as we move in the police and neighbors harass us until we get evicted. They keep us homeless. I am banned from living in a homeless shelter.”
– Aaron I., Florida registrant since age 15. Palm Beach, Florida.
“I get hired and fired from so many jobs. I can usually keep a job for a few weeks until the employer’s name and address goes up on the sex offender registry [because registrants must provide this information]. Employers say it’s ‘bad for business’ to keep me on.”
– Elijah B., placed on the registry at 16. Houston, Texas.
“Employment is difficult. I have to support my wife and kids. I estimate that between January to April 2012 I have applied for 250 positions.”
– Joshua G., placed on the registry for an offense committed at age 12. Dallas, Texas.
“I have to look at a map before I walk anywhere. I can be arrested if I am walking anywhere near a school or park.”
– Blake G., a registrant for an offense committed at age 15. Citrus, Florida.
“These fees are associated with the registrant wherever he goes for the rest of his life. They are forever a tax on his life.”
– Ethan Ashley, attorney for James O., a youth sex offender.
“The most recent laws dilute the effectiveness of the registry as a public safety tool, by flooding it with thousands of low risk offenders like children, the vast majority of whom will never commit another sex offense.”
– Detective Bob Shilling, a former chief detective in charge of the Seattle Sex Crimes Unit responsible for making home visits to registered sex offenders.
“We cast the net widely to make sure we got all the sex offenders … it turns out that really only a small percentage of people convicted of sex offenses pose a true danger to the public.”
– Ray Allen, a former Texas legislator and former chairman of the Texas House Corrections Committee– who once helped push tougher sex offender registration bills into law – admitting that he and his colleagues went too far.
“[O]n many state sex-offender web sites, you can find juveniles’ photos, names and addresses, and in some cases their birth dates and maps to their homes, alongside those of pedophiles and adult rapists.”
– Brenda V. Smith, a law professor and the director of the National Institute of Corrections Project on Addressing Prison Rape at American University’s Washington College of Law.