...these “new” sex offenders are humanized: attractive, promising, law-abiding heterosexual sons and fathers who made some youthful mistakes and deserve a second chance. ...
In one way, it makes sense to focus on extricating juvenile sex offenders from the registry. An estimated one-fourth of the people on the public sex offender registries were convicted as juveniles. Fifteen states post the names and photos of offenders who are minors on the online registries. Thirteen of the 20 states that lock up people in indefinite civil commitment—preventive, dubiously therapeutic detention for crimes not yet committed—include people who committed their offenses as juveniles. “The single age with the greatest number of offenders from the perspective of law enforcement was age 14,” according to the U.S. Department of Justice.
As Raised on the Registry powerfully showed, with little or no intervention these young people are virtually guaranteed not to “reoffend,” mainly because so many of them are penalized for engaging in sex play—things that, even if not always entirely consensual, are common among children and usually without long-lasting harm.
There is no question that getting some people off the list can be a first step toward getting others off—and a way of chipping away at the policy.Anyone who sees the damage caused by the registry celebrates any of the incremental improvements to the lives of registrants.
But there are also significant downsides to campaigns that construct children as exceptional and different from adults. The public may just as easily be left feeling that adults who break the law are bad and deserve all they get—or that guilty people do not deserve fairness or sympathy. This gives legislators a rationale for trading off youth-friendly criminal justice policies for harder adult penalties, as recently happened when New Mexico legalized sexting between teens but increased penalties for people 18 and older sexting with people under 18. Not just adults but some youth can be penalized by the focus on “children.” Call the person who breaks the law a “child,” and there’s a danger that any young person not demonstrably childlike will end up prosecuted as an adult.
Exclusive focus on the young offender—rather than a rejection of the entire sex offender regime—avoids the larger, less politically popular truth. “Sex offender registries are harmful to kids and to adults,” says Emily Horowitz, associate professor of sociology and criminal justice at St. Francis College in Brooklyn, and a board member of the National Center for Reason & Justice, which works for sensible child-protective policies and against unjust sex laws. “No evidence exists that they prevent sex crimes either by juvenile offenders or adult offenders.” [My emphasis.]The sex offender registry is a bad idea for anyone. No matter how guilty or how unsympathetic, no offender deserves extra-judicial punishment long after serving the sentence handed down by the court.
Who could quibble about an organization like Center on Youth Registration Reform (CYRR)? Why not work to keep juveniles off the registry? Why not start there?
When focusing on juveniles, it is easy to sacrifice adults with worse crimes as a sop to those who still believe registries offer some benefits to society.
Such a strategy can invite a wider range of supporters, but it also can mean inadvertent acceptance or even endorsement of policies that are antagonist to justice for wider groups, if not for everyone. For instance, CYRR is collaborating with Eli Lehrer, of the free-market think tank R Street; he is also a signatory of the conservative Right on Crime initiative. Flagged on the CYRR site is an article by Lehrer, published this winter in National Affairs, that argues for taking kids off the registry. But the piece also concludes that ending the registries would be “unwise” and suggests they’d be really good with a few “sensible” tweaks. Lehrer also proposes hardening policies—such as “serious” penalties for child pornography possession and the expanded use of civil commitment—that data reveal to be arbitrary or ineffective and many regard as gross violations of constitutional and human rights.
In a more recent piece in the Daily Caller, as well as testimony before the South Dakota legislature this session, Lehrer repeats how important it is to punish “child molesters” harshly, and while he notes the low recidivism rate for juvenile sex offenders, does not mention that other adults with sex offenses show similarly low rates.The registry is useless in the cause of public safety. Let's not pretend otherwise.
The registry does lasting harm to families who have a member on the registry and no family deserves that, not even families of someone who committed a crime that draws universal condemnation.
Levine and Reimers write about the argument that putting so many people on the registry makes it easy to lose track of offenders who really ought to be tracked. Some organizations like RSOL, Reform Sex Offender Laws, advocate for a registry available only to law enforcement. Changes like these could free many thousands from the registry but those changes would also abandon some families to the public humiliation of the registry and all its deleterious effects.
Offering to leave anyone on the registry is offering up families to suffer for the cause of the more likeable, more sympathetic offenders. No family deserves the registry.
Incrementalism, or taking small steps, has often been posited as the pathway to justice–“Wait. We’ll make reforms now and work on the wider problem later.” Incrementalism can work. Reforms are necessary because they improve daily existence for the people inside the system—in court, in juvenile or immigrant detention, in jails and prison. But organizers must constantly calibrate the tension between reform and radical change, and the dangers of reform without a vision of radical change. By cleaning up a fundamentally corrupt institution, reforms risk legitimizing the institution, often just enough to make it politically palatable. As Martin Luther King wrote in his Letter from Birmingham Jail, “Wait almost always means never.”The registry, in any form, is not palatable. It does nothing to prevent sex abuse and does nothing to improve public safety.
Abolish the registry.