Models for Change: Systems Reform in Juvenile Justice News/updates from the Models for Change juvenile justice reform initiative
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More States View Registration Requirements for Youth who Commit Sex Offenses as Inappropriate

In fact, registries actually have the potential to decrease public safety as well as needlessly harm youth’s lives. Researchers have shown that youth who commit sex offenses – including violent sex offenses – recidivate at the rate of one to three percent.[ii]  Thus, 97 percent of the youth placed on sex offense registries will never commit another sex offense – a much higher percentage than youth who commit other crimes.

Putting youth on these registries means that law enforcement resources must be put toward unnecessary tracking of these youth – often for decades – and this backlog of useless data on the registry can actually impede the ability of police to speedily investigate new sex offenses. One might argue that these drawbacks are worth it, if it means tracking the one to three percent of youth who will recidivate. The problem is that it’s not at all clear that registries help us do that. And that’s not all: a recent federal law that made state registries even tougher has only made this problem worse.

Under the Sex Offender Registration and Notification title of the Adam Walsh Act, passed in July 2006, states are required to classify people who commit sex offenses on their registries into three tiers based on their offense, not their assessed risk. People in the first tier are to receive the least amount of monitoring, and those in the third receive the most. While the Act automatically applies to all youth transferred to criminal court, it went a step further and demanded that states put youth adjudicated delinquent of a Tier III offense in juvenile court on the registry as well. Yet research by Michael Caldwell of the University of Wisconsin has shown there is no difference in the recidivism rates of juvenile sex offenders assigned to any of the three tiers. In fact, Caldwell also found that youth who were classified as sex offenders committed new, sex-related crimes at the same rate as youth who were not.[iii]

In other words, registering youth – especially under the Adam Walsh Act requirements – actually does nothing to protect community safety.

And the requirements are exceptionally harsh. As initially written, the Adam Walsh Act required that youth 14 and older who had been adjudicated in juvenile court for an offense comparable to aggravated sexual assault had to register on a national public sex offender registry (with mandatory community notification requirements) for the rest of their lives. Nor could a youth petition to be removed from the registry until 25 years had passed. Youth have to verify their address, in person, every three months, at a law enforcement agency in every jurisdiction in which they live, work or go to school. Furthermore, the law required states to apply these requirements retroactively to youth had already been adjudicated for sex offenses.

Six years later, however, more and more states are refusing to adopt policies that are expensive to implement and unsupported by the research. Several states have refused to comply with the Adam Walsh Act because the cost of implementation greatly exceeds the amount of federal funds they stand to lose for non-compliance, 10% of their Byrne Justice Assistance Grants. Several more states – New York, Texas, and Vermont – have publicly stated they will not comply because of the requirements to register youth. Other states, such as Illinois, Maryland, Ohio and South Dakota, decided not to comply with the full requirements, limiting the numbers of youth required to register and/or their registration duration.

No doubt because of stiff resistance from the states, the Department of Justice recently issued revised guidelines, in which states are no longer required to make the law retroactive, to place youth on public registries, or to notify community organizations and schools of a youth’s location. Nonetheless, placing adjudicated youth on law enforcement registries for 25 years to life is still mandatory and the guidelines make clear that states may abide by the original rules if desired.

On April 3, 2012, states reluctant to comply with the act gained a significant ally when the Ohio Supreme Court found that state's statute requiring automatic sex offender registration and notification for youth unconstitutional and counter to the rehabilitative goal of the juvenile justice system. In a 5-2 ruling, In re C.P., the court found the statute's automatic lifelong registration and the public notification requirements for youth adjudicated in juvenile court to be a violation of the 8th Amendment's protection against cruel and unusual punishment. The majority opinion cited:

  • the character of a youth, as established in Graham v. Florida and Roper v. Simmons;
  • major opposition from legislators across the country; and
  • the recent decision of the U.S. Attorney General to make optional the provisions in the Adam Walsh Act that previously required public disclosure of information concerning youth convicted of sex offenses in the juvenile justice system.

The Ohio Supreme Court’s ruling helps move us all a bit closer to a sane and research-informed discussion on how to respond to youth who commit sex offenses.


[i]  See Tofte, Sarah, 2007, “No Easy Answers,” Human Rights Watch, for a discussion of the research on sex offense registries.  There is no consistent research that indicate that registries improve public safety.

[ii]Letourneau, E. J. & Armstrong, K. S. (2008). Recidivism rates for registered and nonregistered juvenile sexual offenders. Sexual Abuse: A Journal of Research and Treatment, 20, 393-408 and Letourneau, E. J., Bandyopadhyay, D., Sinha, D., & Armstrong, K. S. (2009). The influence of sex offender registration on juvenile sexual recidivism. Criminal Justice Policy Review, 20, 136-153.

[iii] Caldwell, M. F., Zemke, M. H., & Vittacco, M. J. (2008). An examination of the sex offender registration and notification act as applied to juveniles. Psychology, Public Policy and Law, 14, 89-114.


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