Elizabeth Letourneau, Ph.D.

Prevention Now

Will More Kids Be Branded Sex Offenders for Life?

Thoughts on the SC Supreme Court ruling and Adam Walsh Reauthorization Act.

Posted Jun 12, 2017

On May 22, 2017, the U.S. House of Representatives passed the Federal Adam Walsh Reauthorization Act of 2017. The House’s judiciary subcommittee on crime, terrorism, homeland security and investigations worked to reauthorize the Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act, the only federal law that requires states, tribes and other jurisdictions to register children who have committed sexual offenses.

By removing one paragraph from Section 111 in the Adam Walsh Act that broadens the definition of “sex offender” to include adjudicated juveniles, our elected leaders could have ended this wasteful and ineffective policy.

On May 3, 2017, the South Carolina State Supreme Court upheld lifetime sex offender registration for behavior committed as a child. The court made this finding despite a decade of scientific research that clearly and consistently points to the failure of juvenile registration policies to improve public safety in any way. That much of this literature was based on data from South Carolina only heightens the distance between this ruling and the countervailing scholarship.

My research and that of my colleagues has consistently demonstrated that subjecting children to sex offender registration requirements has no impact on first-time sex crimes or on sex crime re-offenses. Published evaluations exist for the juvenile registration policies in nine states, including Idaho, Maryland, New Jersey, Oregon, South Carolina, Texas, Utah, Virginia and Wisconsin.

Despite differences in how these states structure their juvenile registration policies, the findings are the same: registering children does nothing to prevent the onset of sexual offending nor to reduce sexual reoffending. Instead of improving public safety, subjecting children to a lifetime label of “sex offender” causes predictable and serious harm. 

As such, these policies do nothing to improve community safety, possibly because they are based on false beliefs that children who commit sex crimes are destined to repeat their offenses and are unresponsive to treatment.

In fact, sex crime re-offenses are rare: 97 percent of children adjudicated for sex crimes do not reoffend with new sex crimes. Moreover, strong evidence from multiple randomized controlled trials, the “gold standard” for evaluating therapeutic interventions, shows that children who have engaged in delinquent and harmful behavior ­­— including harmful or illegal sexual behavior — respond well to evidence-based family-focused treatment. 

Registration extends beyond a child’s punishment for sex crimes — beyond incarceration, probation or parole. In many states, including South Carolina, at least some children must register for life. Importantly, registration is constitutional only if its main purpose is not punishment, not “an eye for an eye,” but as a method for protecting communities.

Based on the empirical evidence that registration of children fails to protect communities and on the obviously punishing aspects of labeling a child as a sex offender for life, Pennsylvania and Ohio State Supreme Courts ruled against aspects of their state policies. Likewise, Oregon and Delaware state legislatures revised their registration policies to reflect these truths. South Carolina’s recent Supreme Court finding reminds us that state-level fixes will never be enough.  Rather, what is needed is an amendment to federal legislation that eliminates the requirement for juvenile registration.

There are few areas of U.S. policy where the evidence of failure is clearer or where there is stronger consensus regarding what we should be doing differently. Holding children appropriately accountable for harmful behavior and providing them with evidence-based treatment can reduce their likelihood for future offending. Subjecting them to registration cannot.

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