Government authorities should end the practice of placing juveniles' names on publicly accessible sex-offender registries, Human Rights Watch says in a report warning of lasting and unwarranted harm to some youths.
Some law enforcement officials and victims' rights advocates agree the current registry system is flawed and support steps to allow more discretion in juvenile offenders' cases. Offenses triggering inclusion on the registries can range widely — from rape to consensual sex between children to "sexting" of photos that depict nudity or sexual activity.
"You've got to create a system that keeps the public safe but does not stigmatize a young person for the rest of their life," said Mai Fernandez, a former prosecutor who is executive director of the National Center for Victims of Crime.
Human Rights Watch said its report, being released Wednesday, is the most comprehensive examination to date of the impact that registry laws have on juvenile sex offenders.
"Of course anyone responsible for a sexual assault should be held accountable," says lawyer Nicole Pittman, the report's author. "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."
The report says the laws, which require placing offenders' photographs and personal information on online registries, often make them targets for harassment and violence.
In two cases cited in the report, youths were convicted of sex offenses at 12 and committed suicide at 17 due to what their mothers said was despair related to the registries. One of the boys, from Flint, Mich., killed himself even after being removed from the list.
"Everyone in the community knew he was on the sex offender registry; it didn't matter to them that he was removed," his mother, identified only as Elizabeth M., was quoted as saying. "The damage was already done."
The registry laws generally include restrictions that prohibit offenders from living within a designated distance of places where children gather, such as schools and playgrounds.
"They often struggle to continue their education," Human Rights Watch said. "Many have a hard time finding — and keeping — a job, or a home."
According to Human Rights Watch, 747,000 adult and youth sex offenders were registered nationwide as of 2011. The organization said it was unable to quantify how many were juveniles, but it interviewed 281 youth sex offenders while preparing the report, as well as defense attorneys, prosecutors, judges, law enforcement officials and victims of child-on-child sexual assault.
Among those interviewed was a former offender from Louisiana, identified only as Austin, who was placed on a registry at age 14. According to Pittman, Austin was found to have had sex with a 12-year-old, which was under the age of consent.
"Our mistake is forever available to the world to see," Austin is quoted as saying. "You are never done serving your time. There is never a chance for a fresh start. You are finished. I wish I was executed, because my life is basically over."
Under a federal law, the Adam Walsh Act, states are required to include certain juvenile sex offenders as young as 14 on their registries.
Some states have balked at complying with this requirement, even at the price of losing some federal criminal-justice funding. Other states have provisions tougher than the federal act, subjecting children younger than 14 to the possibility of 25-year or lifetime listings on public registries.
According to Pittman, it's fairly common in about 35 states for juveniles to be placed on public sex-offender registries. Other states take that step only for juveniles convicted of sex offenses in adult court, she said, while a few place juvenile sex offenders only on registries that are not accessible by the public.
The report recommends that all juveniles be exempted from the public registration laws, citing research suggesting they are less likely to reoffend than adult sex offenders.
Short of a full exemption, the report says, registration policies for juveniles should be tailored to account for the nature of their offense, the risk they pose to public safety and their potential for rehabilitation.
"Painting all sex offenders with the same broad brush stymies law enforcement's attempts to focus on the most dangerous offenders," Pittman said.
Scott Burns, executive director of the National District Attorneys Association, said his organization would not support a blanket exemption of juveniles from the sex-offender registries. But he said prosecutors should have the discretion to require registration or not, based upon each case.
"If a 15-year-old 'sexted' a picture of him or herself, it is safe to say that prosecutors would take appropriate steps to ensure that person isn't required to become a registered sex offender for life," Burns said in an e-mail. "If a 17-year-old had committed multiple violent sex offenses against children, registration as a sex offender would most likely be recommended."
Problems with registry policies have attracted attention across the political spectrum, including at the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a conservative think tank in Austin.
Marc Levin, director of the foundation's Center for Effective Justice, said Congress should provide for greater flexibility in the Adam Walsh Act so states can choose to place certain youths in a non-public registry that would be accessible to law enforcement.
Levin said Texas has only a public registry, and children as young as 10 can be placed on it. He said lawmakers should rethink this policy, given that inclusion in the registry "has many serious repercussions for a child's future."
Mai Fernandez, of the center for victims of crime, said the entire sex-offender system — covering both juveniles and adults — is flawed and needs an overhaul.
"If you know a young person living in your neighborhood has raped someone, there are things that should kick in — tighter supervision, more services — to be sure that child doesn't commit that crime again," Fernandez said. "That's more important than the registry."