There are many stereotypes floating around in today’s society about the prototypical sex offender. For example, if one were to imagine what such a person looks like, his or her ethnicity, and what he or she would be wearing, many of us would assume that this person is a 40-something white male with facial hair wearing a long trench coat (with perhaps nothing underneath) and outdated, though arguably retro, glasses from the 1970’s. He’s the guy creeping around the playground or luring kids into his sketchy van with the promise of a lollipop. I believe that this man exists. We don’t want him near our homes, and we certainly don’t want him near our children’s schools. We use the legal system to shame him and find out where he lives. He will forever live his life as a registered sex offender and be marked with one of the hundreds of stigmatic red pins dotting the neighborhoods of America.
But who are those other red pins? What if the person you don’t want near your home, or your child’s school, is another child?
In 1994, New Jersey passed the toughest sex offender registration act in the nation, known as Megan’s Law. The law was named after Megan Kanka, a seven year old who was raped and murdered by a sex offender out on parole. Her parents and the local community were outraged that they were not informed that a twice-convicted sex offender was living in their neighborhood. This started a movement that resulted in the passage of what came to be called “Megan’s Law.” Earlier in 1994, President Clinton had signed the Jacob Wetterling Crimes Against Children and Sexually Violent Registration Act requiring each state to establish a system for sex offender registration. Megan’s Law was added as an amendment to this federal law allowing each state to make its own guidelines for sex offender registration.
Thus, the sentence for sex offenders is not life in prison, but it is a life sentence. Megan’s Law requires that all convicted sex offenders register with local law enforcement agencies for the rest of their lives. All fifty states have sex offender registration, but the standards can vary from state to state, resulting in a confusing labyrinth of requirements. Although all fifty states have a sex offender database, only twenty-eight states require juveniles convicted of a sexual offense to register as sex offenders, five states require juveniles who have been tried as adults to register, and the other seventeen states require all juvenile sex offenders to register. These differences are based on the idea that young people who commit crimes are less culpable and more likely to be successfully rehabilitated than adults. This is the reason the juvenile justice system exists in the first place: there is something different about children. It also seems, however, that there is something different about sex crimes.
Now don’t get me wrong, I do see the bigger picture here. We want laws in place to punish sex offenders for a very good reason: we want to protect citizens, especially children, from such heinous crimes, which makes perfect sense…in theory. What doesn’t make sense, however, is the complete lack of clemency built into the system for these offenders, especially juveniles. Juvenile sex offenders are often more foolish than evil, more naïve and reckless than pedophilic. While it is true that juveniles commit 35.6% of sex crimes against minors, it is also true that only 5% to 14% of juvenile sex offenders re-offend compared with approximately 40% of adult sex offenders. The recidivism rate for juvenile sex offenses is substantially lower than the recidivism rates for other adolescent delinquent behavior, which can range from 8% to 58%.
But what about second chances? Can’t people change? It certainly doesn’t take much to convince someone that the person you are at sixteen is not the person you will be at forty-five. A sixteen-year-old boy certainly doesn’t fit the creeper-in-the-park stereotype of sex offenders. The solution, it seems, is to separate the boys from the men (so to speak—since many sex offenders are women). In order to serve the goals of the juvenile justice system, we should not treat juveniles who commit sex crimes differently than we treat juveniles who commit other crimes. The Association for the Treatment of Sexual Offenders (ATSO) recommends that young sex offenders be treated with juvenile-specific, community-based treatment as an alternative to the adult criminal justice system whenever possible. Additionally, ATSO suggests that juveniles should be subjected to community notification procedures in only the most extreme cases. The juvenile justice system was set up in order to deal with the unique circumstances surrounding crimes committed by young individuals. Our legal system treats juvenile offenders differently for a reason. Juvenile sex offences should not be exceptions to this regime; they should be a central part of it.