In theory, sex offender registries are a useful and important tool for public safety. They are meant to make it easy for members of a community to know when a dangerous repeat sex offender is living among them. For this reason, sweeping legislation like “Megan’s Law” have widespread public support and often pass with little pushback.
But the reality of sex offender registries is more complex, especially when it comes to people who committed crimes as juveniles. One case from New Jersey demonstrates that juvenile offenders can easily end up on a sex offender registry for life, leading to serious personal problems with no public safety benefits.
Youthful mistakes can have serious consequences
The man, profiled in a New Jersey Monitor article, was 14 years old when he was caught sexually experimenting with a younger boy. Police got involved because of the other child’s parents, and the teenager was sentenced to short-term probation and counseling. Several months later, because of a shoplifting offense (which was not a sex offense or in any way related to his sex offense), he was ordered to register as a sex offender for life.
For nearly three decades, the man has been suffering consequences like lost job opportunities, lost relationships and the fear of his sex offender status being exposed (his low-level status means that his name isn’t publicly listed but is discoverable in background checks). He hasn’t committed any additional offenses and is no threat to the community.
Should children be allowed on sex offender registries?
As of last year, there were more than 1,000 current juveniles on New Jersey’s sex offender registry, and an unknown number of adults who were added as juveniles. Nationally, the number of registered sex offenders who committed offenses as juveniles is estimated to be about 200,000.
Should they be on this list at all, much less be forced to register for life? According to statistical research, only 5 percent of juveniles who are convicted of sex crimes will reoffend. Advances in brain research continue to show that young people have a tremendous capacity for reform, and many would simply outgrow criminal behavior even if there were no additional criminal consequences. Is it fair or reasonable to punish someone for life because of an offense they committed as a child?
Juvenile offenders need aggressive legal advocacy
New Jersey and all other states have a separate criminal justice system for juvenile offenders, which is based on the idea that their age makes them less culpable for their actions and more capable of reform. But sadly, too many young offenders receive disproportionate punishment or are tried as adults, which can define the course of the rest of their lives. Anyone charged with a crime – especially a minor – needs and deserves defense representation from a skilled and passionate attorney.