Second chance for some youthful sex offenders

On April 6, Arizona became the latest state to offer early relief from sex offender registration obligations to young people convicted of consensual sex offenses and sentenced to probation.  The law, HB 2539, allows individuals convicted before reaching age 22 of sexual conduct with a minor between the ages of 15 and 17 (so-called “Romeo and Juliet” offenders), to petition the court for relief from registration after completing probation.  If a petitioner meets all applicable criteria, the court must grant the petition unless it finds that a “denial is in the best interests of justice or tends to ensure the safety of the public.”  Similar laws authorizing early termination from registration for those convicted of youthful consensual offenses are in effect in ten other states, including Florida, Oregon, and Michigan.

Laws requiring young people to register have come under increased scrutiny thanks to recent media coverage of their harsh effects and flimsy justifications — notably an article by Sarah Stillman published last month in the New Yorker (“The List”).   Much of the attention to registry of juveniles has been driven by mobilization around the issue by advocacy groups like Reform Sex Offender Laws (RSOL) and the Center on Youth Registration Reform (CYRR).  In 2013, Human Rights Watch issued a ground-breaking report on the issue, Raised on the Registry.

Public registration of juveniles and young people convicted of sex offenses is widespread. According to one recent article,

An estimated one-fourth of the people on the public sex offender registries were convicted as juveniles. Fifteen states post the names and photos of offenders who are minors on the online registries. Thirteen of the 20 states that lock up people in indefinite civil commitment—preventive, dubiously therapeutic detention for crimes not yet committed—include people who committed their offenses as juveniles. “The single age with the greatest number of offenders from the perspective of law enforcement was age 14,” according to the U.S. Department of Justice.

Sex offender registries were created largely based on dubious assumptions about the recidivism rate of those convicted of sexual offenses.  But, as far as young people are concerned, that risk is generally unfounded, particularly given the nature of the offenses they are likely to commit.  The article continues:

As Raised on the Registry powerfully showed, with little or no intervention these young people are virtually guaranteed not to “reoffend,” mainly because so many of them are penalized for engaging in sex play—things that, even if not always entirely consensual, are common among children and usually without long-lasting harm.

Nicole Pittman, the author of the Human Rights Watch Report and Director of CYRR, told NPR in 2015,

We are criminalizing normative child sexual behavior in a large fashion ….. We have kids that are on the registry for streaking at a football game, peeing at a park …. Rome-and-Juliet-type offenses where you have a 17-year-old dating a 14-year-old.  That person goes on the registry.

For these young people, registration is a sentence to economic insecurity and public stigma that may last decades, if not a lifetime. According to a 2014 piece from The Huffington Post,

Finding housing and employment are among the biggest challenges for juvenile offenders on the general sex offenders registry, which makes information like recent photos, home address and place of work publicly available. Many ex-offenders report being harassed, excommunicated or otherwise targeted once neighbors find them on the registry. It can have tragic results in some cases.

“Suicide [among children placed on sex offender registries] is a possibility … even predictable,” David S. Prescott, a social worker and expert on treatment strategies for youth sex offenders told HRW.

Many of the state laws requiring young people to register came about because of the federal Sex Offender Registration and Notification Act (SORNA) – also known as the Adam Walsh Act – a 2006 bill that requires lifetime registration of juveniles convicted as adults, as well as juveniles adjudicated of certain serious offenses in family court.  Many states have refused to implement these and other provisions of the Adam Walsh Act and have forgone federal funding as a result.  Arizona is among them, though it still requires registration of juveniles convicted in adult court and gives family courts discretion to require juvenile registration.

Under Arizona law, juveniles required to register as a result of family court adjudications must remain on the registry until age 25.  Juveniles convicted in adult court remain on the registry for life, except that those sentenced to probation have an opportunity for removal during annual probation review hearings until they turn 22, or upon completion of probation.  HB 2539 extends a similar opportunity for relief to young Arizonans convicted between the ages of 18 and 21 of sexual relations with a minor over the age of 14.

HB 2539 is by no means a game-changer since it will likely only benefit a small percentage of the youthful offenders that are required to register.  But hopefully its passage, and developments in the courts like the Pennsylvania Supreme Court’s 2014 ruling striking down that state’s lifetime registration requirements for juveniles, are a sign that legislatures and courts are ready to give some careful reconsideration to registry laws that ruin young lives while providing little public benefit.

The CCRC maintains a chart that summarizes and compares the availability of relief from sex offender registration obligations in all 50 states, the federal system, and U.S. territories. You can find it at this link.