Do children belong on adult sex offender registries?

Teenager in handcuffs
Image caption Teenagers in 38 states are required to register if convicted of a sex crime

Experts argue that kids who commit sexual crimes have very different motivations to adults. Does that mean they should be exempt from sex offender registries?

Sex offender registry and notification laws have been on the books since the early and mid-1990s. The laws, which require those guilty of certain sexual crimes to make their presence known in their neighbourhood, were put in place to protect children from predators. But what happens when the children themselves are predators?

While their aim is to protect the public and prevent sex offenders from further victimising others, there is a growing field of research to indicate that registration and notification statutes are inconsequential at best when applied to juveniles.

Currently 18 states and three US territories have implemented a law that requires juvenile offenders to be a minimum 14 years of age before they can be registered.

A new report released recently by advocacy group Human Rights Watch argues that placing juvenile sex offenders in public registries does more harm than good and that US authorities should end the practice.

Elizabeth Letourneau, a researcher and professor at the Bloomberg School of Public Health at Johns Hopkins University, says that studies of youth sex offenders show that they are unlikely to reoffend and that registration of youth offenders has no effect on the recidivism rate.

"Registration and notification laws are based on an assumption that is false," she says.

"Youth offenders have very low recidivism rates and there is a very low chance they will offend again."

Letourneau conducted a study of youth sex offenders in South Carolina, which has some of the harshest laws for youth offenders in the US.

Analysing data over a 15-year period, her research shows that recidivism rates among youth offenders was approximately 2.5%.

She says that minors do not fall into the same class of offenders as adult paedophiles and should not be treated equally under the law.

"By and large, they are children that have made terrible choices," said Letourneau. "Registration doesn't work and it doesn't work whether we're looking at high-risk cases or low-risk cases."

When compared with adult offences, juvenile sexual misconduct is often less aggressive and more experimental in nature, a 2009 study for the Department of Justice found.

Researchers found that juveniles who commit sex offences against minors are different from adult paedophiles on a "number of crucial dimensions", including the misconduct itself, the age of the perpetrator, their motivation and background.

While some appeared primarily motivated by sexual curiosity, others exhibited abusive behaviour, from grabbing peers in a sexual way at school to more serious offences like rape.

Others still had a history of serious mental health problems or were victims of abuse themselves.

Researchers also found that while some juvenile offenders exhibited compulsive behaviour, their conduct "more often appears impulsive or reflects poor judgment".

Letourneau says that the most high-risk juveniles would be better suited by a policy that stressed prevention and more appropriate treatment options.

"Certainly some youth are high risk and there the appropriate response is treating them and monitoring them to see if their behaviour changes," she said.

"We know we can treat them effectively and bring that risk down relatively quickly."

Franklin Zimring, a law professor at the University of California Berkeley and author An American Travesty: Legal Responses to Adolescent Sexual Offending, has come to a similar conclusion.

Zimring says that his research shows that youth offenders had a one in 25 probability, or 4% likelihood, of committing a sex offence in the first eight years of adulthood.

When juvenile sex offenders are arrested again, he says, it is far more likely that they are taken in for non-sexual crimes such as property or drug offences.

"Ordinarily with things like public registries and police registries, what you get is a difficult choice between disadvantaging the people you put in the registry and giving the police potentially useful, investigative information," Zimring says.

"That's not the case with youth sex offenders because they don't repeat. It's a waste of resources for investigators and burdensome for the offenders. It's the worst of both worlds."

But defenders of the laws say they feel that focusing on the recidivism rate of youth offenders misses the point of sex registries, for both juveniles and adults.

"Sex offender laws weren't created to reduce recidivism," says Carolyn Atwell-Davis, the Vice-President for Policy and Government Affairs for the victims group the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.

"These laws were created to help law enforcement officials and protect children."

Atwell-Davis says that registering youth offenders also allows them the opportunity to rehabilitate.

While sensitive to the need to differentiate between juvenile and adult sex offenders, she says that juveniles should still be registered with local law enforcement, even if such registration were not publicly available.

However, she agrees that branding them with a lifelong offender status may not be necessary.

"We do see that there would be a benefit for offenders not to be in a registry after completing their rehabilitative goals," Atwell-Davis said.

While states currently must enter youth offenders into a registry of some kind, advocates for the reform of registration and notification laws as applied to juveniles sense that the tone is shifting.

Elizabeth Letourneau says that 10 years ago the sense among victims groups was that "the harm they inflicted lasts a lifetime, so their punishment should last a lifetime".

But today, even former registration and notification advocates like Patty Wetterling, the mother of victim Jacob Wetterling, whose disappearance prompted the first US registration law, question the efficacy of life registration and the expanding scope of notification laws.

For Letourneau, it's a disadvantage that follows children for life.

"It's a type of scarlet letter," says Letourneau. "It sends the message that you are bad, you will always be bad and nothing you do will make you good.