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Michael Haugen | September 4, 2015
Over at the Weekly Standard, Eli Lehrer, President of the R Street Institute and a Right on Crime signatory, has a new column up challenging the current practice of placing juveniles on sex-offender registries, which can often have long-term, adverse effects well into adulthood:
“At age 10, Maya R. did something that would disturb just about anyone: “Me and my step-brothers, who were ages 8 and 5, ‘flashed’ each other and play-acted sex while fully clothed,” she told Human Rights Watch researcher Nicole Pittman. After copping to the incident in juvenile court, Maya’s punishment was an 18-month sentence in a detention center, mandatory counseling, and a quarter-century of registration as a sex offender.
“Maya’s mistake had significant consequences for her life. With her name on a sex-offender registry, she faced harassment in college and ultimately dropped out. Facing huge barriers to finding housing, she spent 90 days in a homeless shelter. She fell into a deep depression. Despite a clean adult record and a life that eventually got on the right track—she did missionary work, married, and now has a child of her own—Maya can’t escape the “sex offender” label. She and thousands of others like her continue to be punished for mistakes they made as children.”
That last sentence captures a central point of Lehrer’s general theme: should youthful indiscretions—frequently marked by a lack of judgement gained through age and experience—cast a substantial legal pall over people, following them into later years?
While Lehrer acknowledges that, in general, sex-offender registries are “certainly popular”—indicated by overwhelming support for their creation in states that consider them—what isn’t clear, as Lehrer explains, is whether the public derives any benefit by way of increased safety in extending registration to juvenile offenders:
“There’s little evidence that youthful sex offenders remain a public danger. The largest meta-analysis shows that only about 7 percent of youthful sex offenders are ever convicted of another offense. Some studies have found reoffense rates as low as 1 percent. By comparison, 40 percent of adults convicted of serious crimes reoffend.”
Given such low recidivism rates for juveniles, the argument for keeping tabs on young offenders for years on end, even into adulthood—which, ostensibly, is to maintain public safety—is harder to justify. There may be cases that do, in fact, pose genuine risks to society, however, as Lehrer states, “prosecutors can avail themselves of the opportunity to file adult charges” as individual circumstances dictate.
Beyond this far lower likelihood that juvenile offenders will go on to recidivate, other factors merit consideration as well, according to Lehrer, including the fact that long term monitoring “wastes resources” that law enforcement and other relevant actors can dedicate to targeting “those who pose real dangers to society.”
To address these concerns, Lehrer suggests that federal incentives that encourage states to comply with federal classification of sex offenses—which include juveniles—ought to be eliminated. Additionally, states should “rejigger their registry laws,” says Lehrer, recognizing that while teenagers may need “counseling, punishments from their parents, and admonitions from other adults,” it shouldn’t be common practice to levy criminal sanctions against them.
Given the sensitive nature of this area of policy, it’s worthwhile to acknowledge that reforms to such registries are likely to engender resistance—especially in light of their popular support. As always, protecting victims of crime is of primary concern. However, as with other areas of the criminal justice system, we should also be prepared to examine instances where the pendulum has perhaps swung too far, in the interest of reducing the likelihood, as Lehrer concludes, of doing “little good and much harm.”