CALCASA has long standing partnerships to improve sex offender management in California. We are dedicated to exploring innovations that promote rehabilitation and holistic individual, family and community health and safety.
Recently, the New Yorker Magazine published an article that featured the impact of sex offender registration for juvenile sex offenders and their families, considering a variety of juvenile committed offenses. The article highlights the long-lasting damage and unforeseen consequences of sex offender registration for juvenile offenders and prompts a critical conversation around what is the appropriate way to protect survivors, promote public safety, and prevent child sexual abuse.
The Sex Offender Registration and Notification Act (SORNA), federally enacted in 2006, requires that jurisdictions include juvenile sex offenders in their registry under certain sex offenses, if they are at least 14 years old at the time of the offense and if the juvenile was prosecuted as an adult. These offenses may include committing a sexual act by force, threat of serious violence, or by “rendering unconscious or drugging the victim”.
According to the Centers for Disease Control, as many as one out of every four girls and one out of every six boys have experienced some form of sexual abuse before the age of eighteen, and, in a third of such cases, the National Center on the Sexual Behavior of Youth says, the offenses were committed by other juveniles. “The single age with the greatest number of offenders from the perspective of law enforcement was age 14,” a study sponsored by the Department of Justice notes.
Currently, policies and practices for juvenile sex offender management mirrors protocol for adults. The sexual offenses committed by juveniles are being prosecuted as if the adolescents are adult offenders, without regard to their social and emotional development. Unbeknownst to the juveniles and their families, the registry is a lifelong requirement with long-term impacts. Offenders must register with their local law enforcement to be in compliance or otherwise face jail time.
Additionally, the mandate sets limitations on where offenders can live, work and socialize. These enacted methods have interfered with the juveniles’ livelihood as adults. As one person in the article who was registered as a sex offender at thirteen shared, the impacts have also defined adulthood. Individuals may experience homelessness, job loss, having to take jobs below the minimum wage, not being able to provide for their kids (or worse, losing their kids), relationship problems, struggles with deep depression and hopelessness, and the fear of being discovered simply by a Google search. In some instances, the residential juvenile-sex-offender treatment facilities that individuals were sent to for mandated treatment programs subjected them to verbal and physical abuse by other residents.
There is inconsistency in determining which youth can receive community based- treatment and which juveniles should be treated in residential programs. The juvenile population is not all alike and the offenses they commit vary as well. Some youth may require more treatment, while other offenders may need less intense services. The support and stability in offender’s family structures also vary greatly. A 2002 nationwide survey on current practices and trends in sexual offender management recommends that assessments are developmentally appropriate and be mindful of the juvenile’s social and family structure. This will allow for individualized planning and risk assessment and avoid a one size fits all approach.
Studies from the Center for Sex Offender Management show that approximately 40% to 80% juvenile sex offenders experience sexual abuse. Although many youth who commit sexual offenses have histories of being abused, the majority of these youth do not become adult sex offenders. We must consider the ways that we can offer services to youth offenders who are also survivors of sexual abuse.
Some sex offender management boards only address problems concerning adult sex offenders and help enhance policies and practices for that population, such as the California Sex Offender Management Board (CASOMB). Whereas, the Denver Sex Offender Management Board addresses both adult and juvenile sex offenders. Denver’s board implemented guiding principles that encompass standards of practice for treatment providers who specifically work with juveniles. Such standards can help counteract the focus on criminalization and utilize more treatment-focused options.
Yes, juvenile sex offenders need to be held accountable for their actions and the choices they make. Yes, they must adhere to the law. And we must remember, they are not adults. A more comprehensive approach would consider whether the consequences fit the act and the age. For example, technology is getting juveniles into criminal trouble, particularly with “sexting”. “Sexting” is sending and receiving sexually explicit messages, videos, and/or images, primarily between mobile phones. Several cases have been noted, such as the Newton High School “sexting” ring in Colorado where a group of teens were “sexting” sexually explicit videos and images, sometimes for money via Snapchat, FaceTime, iMessage, KiK and other social media apps. These actions only came into light when a teen who saw the messages told an adult. In this case, three teens were charged with obscenity, transmitting or possession of child pornography by a minor, as well as felony counts of possession of child pornography and obscenities as to minors. The other 20 were referred to a community-based Juvenile Review Board. The criminal case and community-based review board will determine the life these youths will live, some as convicted and registered sex offenders. Criminal justice and sex offender management systems utilizing a continuum of care approach can, in these types of cases, encourage a dialogue to address various levels of sexual violence committed by youth, and also their victimization, with consideration to alternatives to accountability beyond criminalization.
We need to have critical conversations on effective therapeutic interventions for juvenile sex offenders with a framework that promotes healing and rehabilitation. There must be a tiered and context-specific approach to accountability–a system that takes into account the age, development, and seriousness of abuse, and connects with appropriate consequences and supports. Such comprehensive approaches will better serve survivors and communities, reduce recurrence, and connect those who are using abusive behaviors to the right therapies and interventions. Sex offender registration laws were developed to address community concerns and public safety, and it will take a community-approach to evaluate these laws and ensure that they are not doing more harm than good.
*This blog was written collaboratively by CALCASA staff Emily Austin, Shaina Brown, Imelda Buncab, and Adrienne Spires.
- Center for Sex Offender Management; Hunter and Becker, 1998
- Center for Sex Offender Management; Becker and Murphy, 1998