by Layni Sprouse*
In 1990, in the wake of her 11-year-old son Jacob’s kidnapping, which grabbed the attention of the entire county, Minnesota native Patty Wetterling believed it crucial to take action to protect children against sexually violent offenders. Due to her efforts and the tragic story of her son, the first sex offender registry was created in Minnesota in 1991. In 1994, Congress enacted the Jacob Wetterling Act, which required each state to set up a sex offender registry just like the one in Minnesota.
Inspired by the tragic fates of other children just like Jacob, several other pieces of legislation followed, including Megan’s Law in 1996 and the Adam Walsh Act in 2006. Megan’s law turned the sex offender registries created by the Wetterling Act, which were initially for the private use of law enforcement, into publicly accessible information. The Adam Walsh Act established a national sex offender registration system and required that sex offenders’ addresses, photographs, and other information be publicly disclosed, in addition to lowering the age limit for potential registrants to as young as 14. Failure to comply with all of the requirements set out in these legislative acts could result in a loss of funding for the state.
Patty Wetterling and the others like her had nothing but good intentions when they initially sought to create sex offender registries. Their efforts to seek justice and protection for children against violent sex predators cannot be overlooked or understated. Despite these good intentions, however, their efforts to protect children by creating a sex offender registry have backfired, as the registry has had the effect of ruining some children’s lives before they have even begun.
Today, juveniles charged with certain crimes are required to register as sex offenders in almost every state. A report from the Juvenile Law Center notes that “Over 2,000 individuals are on sex offender registries for offenses committed when they were children.” Included in the list of crimes which can land juveniles on the sex offender registry are “consensual sexual relationships, sexting, and public urination.” Requiring juveniles to be registered as sex offenders often has lifelong implications, in some ways imposing a “life sentence” on the youths. The obstacles to living a normal life which are placed in front of juvenile sex offenders include employment and registry restrictions, as well as a prohibition on living with other children (including their own siblings). As their registration follows them into adulthood, individuals that were registered as sex offenders due to an offense committed during their youth can even be prevented from residing with their own children.
In addition to this, being placed on a sex offender registry carries with it a stigma that can last a lifetime and a label that can never truly be erased from the internet. The enduring nature of the internet further reinforces the idea that placing youths on sex offender registries amounts to a “life sentence.” The stigma that accompanies being placed on a sex offender list at such a young age often results in serious mental health problems and safety concerns. Juveniles placed on sex offender registries are more likely to attempt suicide and less likely to develop a “healthy self-identity.” Being labeled as a sex offender as a child can also lead to homelessness and stunted educational development. Notably, juveniles that are already members of disadvantaged populations due to their race or sexual identity are hurt more by laws requiring that juveniles register as sex offenders. As noted by the American Bar Association, “youth of color and juveniles who identify as LGBTQ are overrepresented on sex offender lists.”
While the consequences that follow juvenile sex offender registration continue to grow, the efficacy of the registries in preventing sex crimes against children has remained unclear. Because of their youth, recidivism rates for juveniles are very low and they are best situated to “turn their lives around.” As mentioned above, however, the restrictions placed on their lives from such an early age significantly stifle their ability to do so.
The initial purpose of creating the sex offender registry was to aid law enforcement and other public entities so that they were able to protect the public. This purpose has been undermined by the harsh reality of sex offender registries and their impact on juveniles. It is clear that far too often, sex offender registries are seriously harming those whom they are intended to protect. This makes it difficult to justify the continued practice of placing juveniles on sex offender registries. Some of the suggested reforms to the current registry system for sex offenders to decrease the number of juveniles registered include limiting the offenses that require registration to only those that pose significant threats to public safety and completely removing juveniles from the lists. Due to their poor efficacy and the lasting damage inflicted into adulthood, justice requires removing juveniles from sex offender registries.
*Layni Sprouse, University of Minnesota Law School Class of 2024, JLI Vol. 40 Staff Member