Eliminating the Practice of Placing Youth on Sex Offender Registries in the U.S.

Stoneleigh Fellow: Nicole Pittman, 2014-2018

The Problem

The rationale for a separate justice system for juveniles is based on the fundamental premise that children are developmentally different from adults. The juvenile justice process is intended to take into account each child’s problems and needs, focusing less on punishment and more on helping the child to change and minimize the likelihood of future criminal behavior.  Despite this premise, for more than twenty years, children as young as eight have been subjected to the same harsh, lifetime sex offender registration and notification restrictions as adults.

Child-on-child sexual violence is a complex, traumatic and disturbing form of harm against children that understandably elicits concern and outrage.  Over the past two decades, a range of public safety laws enacted to prosecute and deter these crimes have ensnared youth convicted of sex offenses in an overly broad policy that has caused a variety of harmful consequences.  

Emerging from high-profile cases of sexual abuse in the 1980s and 1990s, state and federal policymakers passed registration, community notification and residency restriction laws that initially neither required nor prohibited the inclusion of children convicted of sex offenses.  However, by the mid-1990s, many state registration laws began to include children adjudicated delinquent of sex offenses, as well as those tried and convicted as sex offenders in adult court.  Today, 40 states register children who were adjudicated delinquent in juvenile court.  The United States is the only country in the world that subjects children to such harsh penalties.

There are numerous unintended consequences of these laws.  First, they overburden law enforcement with large numbers of adults and children who must be monitored without regard to the level of public safety threat they pose.  Further, with the proliferation of online registries mandated by states, a former offender’s criminal history, photograph, address and other information is available online.  Given the easy public access to this information, registrants have been subjected to public humiliation, harassment, and even violence.  The stigma associated with being labeled a sex offender ultimately follows these young people into adulthood and significantly affects their ability to successfully integrate into society. 

The Fellowship Project

Nicole Pittman is the leading national expert on the impact of sex offense registries on children in the juvenile justice system.  The overall goal of her Stoneleigh Fellowship is to eliminate the practice of placing youth on sex offender registries while advancing evidence-based practices to meet the needs of the whole child.  The project has two main focus areas:

1) The Campaign to End Youth Registration, which will spread national awareness of harmful youth registration laws and support federal and state lawmakers as they move toward safer registration schemes.

2) The development of the first Center on Youth Registration Reform dedicated to providing jurisdictions with technical, legal, and programmatic assistance as they remove youth from their registries.