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The Harms of Placing Kids on Sex Offender Registries

Registering kids makes them targets for violence and increases their risk for mental health and other problems—without reducing reoffending.

By Maria Blackburn

On the surface, requiring people who have been adjudicated or convicted of sexually abusing children to register with law enforcement seems like a smart way to protect kids and prevent child sexual abuse.

“Registration has a certain bumper sticker logical appeal,” says Michael Caldwell, PsyD, a University of Wisconsin psychology lecturer who has studied sex offender risks since 1978. “Who wouldn’t think it’s a good idea?”

Two decades of research tell a different story. Not only is sex offender registration largely ineffective in preventing child sexual abuse, it’s especially harmful to kids who are on the registry, some of whom remain on it for life.

Some 70% of sexual offenses against children in the U.S. are perpetrated by other children, usually a slightly older relative or friend who offends out of ignorance, impulsivity, and convenience, not predation. Estimates of the number of people on sex offense registries for crimes committed as children range from tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands.

Dozens of studies have shown that registering kids who have committed sexual offenses with minors does not reduce sexual, violent, or nonviolent reoffending, or deter first-time sex crimes. Instead, it creates substantial barriers for kids, increases their own risk of harm, and limits their success as adults.

Kids incarcerated for sex crimes worry that registration will impact their relationships with family and friends, says Rebecca Fix, PhD, MS, an assistant professor in Mental Health and faculty affiliate in the Moore Center for the Prevention of Child Sexual Abuse. “Registration could greatly interrupt social support systems, placing youth at greater risk for future mental health problems and participation in illegal behavior,” Fix says.

Federal law requires states to register people convicted of sexual crimes, including children as young as 14. States can, at their discretion, register even younger kids.

“We don’t subject kids to the death penalty, and we shouldn’t subject them to registration,” says Elizabeth Letourneau, PhD, director of the Moore Center.

She and others are hopeful that the practice will change. The American Law Institute, an independent organization of thousands of lawyers, judges, and scholars, in March recommended virtually eliminating juvenile registration by revising the Model Penal Code, which encourages U.S. states to standardize their criminal codes.

“Kids are different from adults—they tend to be more impulsive, they are more influenced by their peers, and they have less life experience,” Letourneau says. “Yet when it comes to notification and registration, kids are being treated as adults and it’s harmful. It doesn’t work. It costs money. And it puts kids at risk of death and sexual assault victimization. You could not have a worse set of outcomes for a policy.”