The Texas juvenile justice system was created in 1973 with the intent of removing the stigma of criminality from the unlawful acts of children. Subsequently, in 1995 the purpose of the juvenile courts was altered “to remove, where appropriate, the taint of criminality from children committing certain unlawful acts."
Among these “certain unlawful acts” were those involving sexual behavior. The attention focusing on the adult males who had sexually assaulted children before murdering Jessica Lunsford and Sara Lunde, coupled with the misconception of the ever increasingly violent juvenile offender, resulted in the view that children who committed sexual offenses were just smaller versions of presumed “chronic” adult sexual abusers. The laws initially intended to protect children began to label children as sex offenders.
There are not many offenses that capture the attention of the public with the intensity of emotional intensity and outrage as sexual offenses. State and local policy reflect this public sentiment with severe punishments. The in 1990s Texas as well as the rest of the United States initiated sex offender registration, where anyone convicted of a sexual offense would be placed on the public registry. The media popularized the idea of “stranger danger,” giving the public the inaccurate view that strangers were the most common perpetrators of sexual abuse. However in 95% of the cases perpetrators are individuals well known to the child victim (U.S. Department of Justice 2004). However well intended it was to create a registry, after all it is the duty of society to nurture and protect its children, little thought was given to the children who were labeled as sexual offenders.
The placing of youth on the sex offender registry has a number of unintended, lasting effects. The process of placing a child on the registry under the juvenile courts system then kept on supervision well into adulthood is counter-intuitive to the entire idea of a juvenile justice system. By design, the system should allow youth offenders a chance for rehabilitation without having lasting consequences on their chance to become fully productive citizens. However, the registry marginalizes children on the registry because they often become excluded from school activities, religious activities, recreational sports (e.g. using public swimming pools), parks, or anyplace children may congregate. As the child maltreatment expert Mark Chaffin wrote:
It is during adolescence and early adulthood that life-course tipping points for these social anchors are met and a future life direction is steered. Serious stigmatization and marginalization diminish the prospects for healthy social anchors and can set a course for criminal behavior as well as numerous other problems. Normally, we believe it is in everyone’s interest to stigmatize and isolate juvenile delinquents far less than we do adult criminals. For young delinquents labeled as sex offenders, we have now decided to stigmatize and isolate them far more than we do most adult criminals—indeed, we are now going out of our way to stigmatize and exclude them to an extent unprecedented in modern juvenile justice history.
Sex offender registration makes the transition from incarceration to productive citizen difficult at best. The stigma surrounding the label “sex offender” causes considerable problems for securing employment. The isolation caused by being listed on the registry can actually put youth at considerable risk for their own safety and mental health, while doing nothing to protect the community. In a study examining the effects of registration in one state, Letourneau (2012) wrote “research indicates that South Carolina’s registration and notification policy fails to deter new juvenile sex crimes… fails to deter juvenile sexual or violent recidivism… and increases the risk that youth will incur new non-sex, non-violent misdemeanor charges.”
Supporters of registration requirements believe the registry provides safety and security to the community, by giving the public useful information so they can protect their children. The most glaring misconception is the notion of “stranger danger,” when most sex crimes against children are actually carried out by people well known to and often trusted by the children. There is also widespread belief that sex offenders have high recidivism rates when in fact 95 % of all sex offenders are first time offenders (Department of Justice, 2004). Preteen sex offenders who undergo treatment have recidivism rates as low as 2% (Chaffin).
In sum there are many problems with placing children on sex offender registries. The registry marginalizes youth, makes integration into society difficult, and has destructive and devastating effects on the children, and their families. There is an old adage that states “bad facts seldom make for good laws,” politicians quick to react to the media hype surrounding sex crimes against children have ushered in laws largely based on urban myth, and by doing so have created a system in which youth on the list are ostracized, denied employment, and granted little more than 2nd class citizenship by society.