Human Rights Watch Decries Putting Minors on Sex Offender Lists

LOS ANGELES—A 111-page report released May 1 by the Human Rights Watch details the harm public registration laws have caused for youth sex offenders, many of whom have spent years on sex registries for relatively minor offenses, and recommends exempting people under the age of 18 from being placed on state or federal sex offender registries.

The report, titled “Raised on the Registry: The Irreparable Harm of Placing Children on Sex Offender Registries in the US,” addresses an issue that has received increased public attention over time as the real-world consequences of these registries have sunk in for judges, parents, law enforcement officials, legislators and, of course, the minors themselves.

The flip side of any argument about sex offender rights is the very sex offenses allegedly perpetrated by the minors. On that score, the report’s lead author, Nicole Pittman, a Soros Senior Justice Advocacy Fellow at Human Rights Watch, advocates personal responsibility and legal intervention.

"Of course anyone responsible for a sexual assault should be held accountable,” she said. “But punishment should fit both the offense and the offender, and placing children who commit sex offenses on a public registry—often for life—can cause more harm than good.”

Harm detailed in the report includes registration requirements that “can apply for decades or even a lifetime and are layered on top of time in prison or juvenile detention, require placing offenders’ personal information on online registries, often making them targets for harassment, humiliation, and even violence. The laws also severely restrict where, and with whom, youth sex offenders may live, work, attend school, or even spend time.”

The report cites a litany of first-person accounts culled from 16 months of investigation. “Human Rights Watch interviewed 281 youth sex offenders, whose median age at offense was 15, across 20 states, as well as hundreds of offenders’ family members, defense attorneys, prosecutors, judges, law enforcement officials, experts on the topic, and victims of child-on-child sexual assault,” stated the press release.

One such offender, “Dominic G.,” of San Antonio, Texas, who was required to register for an offense he committed when he was 13, told the researchers, “I'm a ghost. I can’t put my name on a lease, I never receive mail. No one cares if I am alive. In fact, I think they would prefer me dead.”

Others never made it out of their teens. The study cites at least two such examples of children convicted of sex offenses at the age of about 12 who has committed suicide by the age of 17.

The majority of youth sex offenders interviewed by Human Rights Watch were placed on a registry between 2007 and 2011, but because some state registration laws have been in place for nearly two decades, large numbers of people who first registered as children are now well into adulthood. Their offenses, say the study authors, range from “heinous crimes like rape, to consensual sex between children, to relatively innocuous actions like public nudity.”

According to Pittman, “Many people assume that anyone listed on the sex offender registry must be a rapist or a pedophile. But most states spread the net much more widely.”

The solution, says Human Rights Watch, is not to try to fix the way minors are treated while registered, but to not list them in the first place. “States and the federal government,” recommends HRW, “should exempt people who commit sex offenses when they are under age 18 from public registration laws because the laws violate youth offenders’ basic rights.”