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Keep Kids Off the Sex Offender Registry

Parents sit during a presentation
Parents listen to a seminar on teens and “sexting,” a practice that has led to charges of child pornography and landed juveniles on the sex offender registry. © Jessica Hill/AP

It’s time to rethink the wisdom of including juveniles on sex offender registries. There is abundant evidence—reviewed in a new paper from my organization—that the social costs far outweigh the benefits.

Starting in the early 1990s, all 50 states and the federal government began setting up public sex offender registries. Today, 40 of them include people adjudicated juvenile delinquent. People on registries face any number of challenges, including severe restrictions dictating where they can live, where they can work, and whom they have to inform.

The social benefits of the registration process, to the extent that they exist, are mainly limited to a small deterrent effect, estimated to be about a one-eighth reduction in sex offense recidivism among those who committed offenses as juveniles. But scholar Richard Belzer, who conducted our study, finds the net social costs are between $40 million and $1 billion a year.

When it comes to notification laws, the evidence is even starker. There are no identifiable social benefits to applying notification laws to those who committed offenses as juveniles, while the social costs range from $400 million to $2 billion per year.

Registration and notification laws are meant to protect the people who live in the same community as the registered offender. But ironically, Belzer found these are the people who bear the brunt of the cost of these laws. When it comes to notification laws, neighbors are actually saddled with three-quarters of the social costs. Property values and rental rates go down, schools must shoulder greater responsibilities, and businesses suffer.

For some recidivist pedophiles, these restrictions may make sense. But they’re not sensible for those tried in juvenile court. While there certainly are teenagers who commit real sex crimes, they’re probably a minority of those who end up on registries. Many are teens who were found to have had consensual sex with other teens. Others end up on registries for minor misdeeds like streaking or exchanging nude selfies, leading to charges of child pornography.  

We aren’t suggesting that registration laws be done away with altogether. But there are steps we can take from an economic efficiency perspective to lower the social costs incurred.

Ideally, we should exempt juveniles from the registry laws altogether. In addition, we should retroactively remove registrants from the list who committed crimes that would not have landed them on there today. It’s important to note that many jurisdictions already take extensive steps to keep juveniles off the registry. Those who were listed before these more relaxed policies were implemented should see the same consideration today.

Finally, even if states feel they must continue juvenile registration, judges should at least consider granting stays of notification pending future good conduct. Recidivism rates for juvenile sex offenders are so low that they’re statistically indistinguishable from zero in many cases. Stays of notification would be cheap, easy, and require no changes in most state laws.

The juvenile justice system is based on second chances. In theory, its sanctions are supposed to be levied in the best interests of the accused. Requiring lifelong registration for juvenile offenders is economically inefficient. In addition, it undermines the ideals of forgiveness, second chances, and rehabilitation that are supposed to sit at the heart of juvenile justice. 

The R Street Institute is a grantee of the Open Society Foundations.

Read the complete report on juvenile sex offender registries.

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