At the age of 17, Mark O. of Grand Rapids, Mich., got his then 15-year old girlfriend pregnant. Taking responsibility for his actions and agreeing to provide support, he signed the birth certificate and later married the mother of his child.
His “reward” was to face charges for sexual assault and a long-term requirement that his name and photo appear on a public sex-offender registry.
Still married to the same woman and now a father of another child with her, Mark lives with the stigma. He can’t live wherever he choses, must get permission to change jobs and is barred from many professions. After a teacher did an Internet search, most of his children’s’ classmates now know that he’s a “sex offender.”
Mark isn’t alone. Across 40 states, thousands of people are listed on sex-offender registries for offenses they committed as juveniles. The practice of requiring juveniles to register as sex offenders, recently documented at length in The New Yorker magazine, presents a significant problem. Requiring sex-offender registration for juveniles is often ridiculous, wastes money and undermines the entire purpose of the juvenile justice system. Federal and state officials both should act to end it.
By design, juvenile courts are supposed to rehabilitate, rather than punish. While they have simpler procedures and accord fewer rights to defendants, the supposed trade-off is that sanctions are far less severe. Most people can’t be held for juvenile offenses beyond the age of 21 and juvenile records are almost always eligible to be sealed (the process is sometimes automatic). Even those with unsealed juvenile records rarely face barriers to voting, owning firearms, participating in government programs and working where they chose.
By contrast, sex-offender registration can last for life and the system’s restrictions can be severe.
While there’s no question that adults who prey on young children deserve severe punishment, many of the crimes committed by juveniles probably shouldn’t be crimes at all. Teen pregnancies are undesirable but it’s difficult to see why consensual relationships like Mark’s should be considered “rape.” In fact, the mere threat of rape charges almost certainly leaves a fair number of children fatherless.
Teenagers who trade naked “selfies” may deserve to lose their smartphones, but it’s absurd to charge them (as Pennsylvania and Ohio have) as “child pornographers.” And while it may well be appropriate to mandate intervention and even punishment in cases involving games of “doctor” and inappropriate touching, children involved in these activities may not even understand them. In cases where older juveniles commit violent rapes and other truly serious offenses, 49 states have procedures to try and sentence them in the adult system.
In the end, juvenile registration and notification is simply a waste. A major economic analysis conducted by my organization shows that sex-offender registration and notification for juveniles imposes costs as high as $3 billion annually, with virtually no economic benefits. We aren’t talking about adult recidivist pedophiles who pose an ongoing danger to communities. Less than one child out of 100 on the sex-offender registries reoffends. Putting children on these registries diverts resources from far more important efforts to monitor true sexual predators.
To end sex-offense registration for children would first require Congress to repeal current laws that punish states with the loss of federal grant dollars if they don’t register juveniles. The 40 states that currently have sex-offender registration for children also should change their laws and clear their registries of anyone still listed for a crime committed as a juvenile.
Taking these steps would save money, free resources to focus law enforcement on true child predators and advance the interests of justice.
Eli Lehrer is president of the R Street Institute, a free-market think tank.