By Sarah Krantz, Esq.
Mistakes that children make can have lasting consequences if the mistake is looked at in the eyes of the law as a sexual act. Children that have pulled down another child’s pants or sent nude pictures or videos are finding themselves on the national sex-offender registry, often for 10 years or more. Other children have committed true sexual acts, such as inappropriate sexual touching of a relative; these children are not only locked up, but also placed on the lifetime sex-offender registry.
The first push for a secret list of all degenerates was made after the sexually-motivated murders of several young girls in New York in 1937. In the late 1940s, a sex-offender database was created in California for police to use privately. It wasn’t until the 1990s that the public took notice of these lists. The sex-offender registry, as we know it today, began in 1994 after the disappearance of a young boy in Minnesota; his mother became the major proponent of reforms that would require states to establish sex-offender registries for law enforcement. In 1996, Megan’s Law passed, which made the national registry accessible to the public. Jessica’s Law and its variants established mandatory minimum sentences, made offenders’ home addresses public, provided photographs of the offenders, and required the registration of juvenile offenders as young as 14.
Since the passage of these laws, many reformers have regretted the unintended consequences. What was once meant to help keep kids safe in their communities is now becoming an unbearable burden for those convicted of minor sex crimes. For example,
Mark Lunsford, the father of murder victim Jessica Lunsford, lobbied for the passage of Jessica’s Law in Florida; however, years later, his own son was placed on the registry for having a consensual sexual encounter with a younger girl when he was 18.[i] Lunsford distinguished his son’s case from the sex offenders that he wanted to put on the registry: “We’re talking about Romeo and Juliet here, not some 36-year-old pervert following around a 10-year-old.”[ii]
Last year, The New Yorker told the stories of individuals who were convicted of sex crimes as minors and who have suffered the consequences of sex-offender registries.[iii] One such story follows.
Leah DuBuc grew up in the small town of Howell, Michigan. After her parents divorced, DuBuc stayed in her home with her father who soon remarried a woman with four small children. Curious about sexual acts and what she saw on television, DuBuc acted out sex on multiple occasions with her step-siblings and exposed her genitals to them.
One day, DuBuc complained to school authorities about her home life. When an investigator was sent to DuBuc home, what Leah had done in the past to her siblings came out. Later, it was learned that the incidents had already been reported by a stepsibling to a therapist who had alerted authorities.
DuBuc was charged with eight counts of criminal sexual conduct at the age of 12. She was given a court-appointed attorney who advised her to plead guilty to two counts of criminal sexual conduct involving penetration—charges that we more serious than the crime she says she committed—then she would be taken away from her home. She took the plea deal in an effort to ease the burden on her family and her father, who did not appear to fully understand the legal implications of his daughter’s situation. DuBuc was ordered to spend two years at a residential juvenile sex-offender treatment facility. At the facility, she roomed with three other girls and was the youngest child in the entire program.
After returning home, DuBuc flourished in high school. She earned straight A’s, wrote articles of the school newspaper, and led the school’s chapter of Students Against Driving Drunk (now called Students Against Destructive Decisions). During DuBuc’s tenure at high school, the Michigan legislature passed a law that required her to register as a sex offender in a new online registry. At 18, DuBuc’s name and personal information was added to the site for the mandatory minimum of 25 years.
Soon after, DuBuc began attending Western Michigan University with plans to study social work. It was in her freshman year that her past finally caught up with her. A friend had spotted her on the sex-offender registry. Soon, other students in her dorm discovered her sex-offender status and began sending her threatening messages. DuBuc tried to get a job so that she could rent her own apartment, but everywhere rejected her due to her status. She eventually dropped out of college after she got a job as a home-health-care aide in her hometown. When she went back to school, she lived in a homeless shelter until a friend took her in.
DuBuc’s sex-offender status became her identity, and she desperately wanted it back. She began to study the sex-offender registry and began compiling extensive notes on the registry and its history. She wrote letters to legislators pleading to be taken off the registry so that she could have a second chance, but nothing changed.
In 2008, DuBuc graduated with a master’s degree in social work, but again, could not find work due to her sex-offender status and juvenile record. She realized that her past would always haunt her if she remained in the United States, so she packed up and left the country. Abroad, she got married and had a child—her status no longer mattered now that she lived in a country that had no sex-offender registry.
One day, DuBuc got a call from her juvenile advocate, who informed her that she would automatically be removed from the juvenile sex-offender registry due to the passage of new legislation that expunged offenders who were younger than 14 at the time that the offense was committed. She moved back to her hometown and took her family with her. Unfortunately, however, DuBuc quickly learned that while her name was no longer on the registry, her fingerprints and record still showed up in certain criminal background checks, and she was unable to secure employment.
Current Policy Concerns
Dr. Elizabeth Letourneau, the director of the Moore Center for the Prevention of Child Sexual Abuse at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, has been studying juvenile sex offenders for over a decade. While sexual offenses do cause considerable harm, Dr. Letourneau believes that governments can do a “much, much better job of targeting the kids who commit these behaviors, and preventing them.” In her research, she also found that upwards of 95 percent of youths charged with sex offenses do not reoffend sexually. This is contrary to common preconceived notions about juvenile sex offenders.
Dr. Letourneau also criticizes what she believes is the overuse of “sex offender treatment.” Dr. Letourneau argues that in many cases, simple lessons about inappropriate touching and on sexual boundaries are often sufficient to successfully treat most juveniles. The best treatment—which is not available to 95 percent of children who need it— is “multi-systemic therapy” that combines “individualized treatment of a child with programming that involves the child’s parents or caregivers.” Due to the unavailability of such treatments, kids are forced into “poorly regulated” therapy programs that subject them to “widely debunked interventions or controversial invasive technologies.” In these residential treatment programs kids can suffer “verbal abuse, beatings, or even sexual predation,” only causing further harm.
The most promising juvenile sex offender reform has come out of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, in 2014, where the Juvenile Law Center won a ban on mandatory lifetime sex-offender registration for juveniles. In Texas, “an official task force has formed to assess ways of improving outcomes for juveniles charged with sex offenses” but legislation has not yet been formed.
Nichole Pittman, a defense attorney, is also pushing for changes with her “hundred-plus-page Human Rights Watch report” that she spent years working on by interviewing youth registrants. However, Pittman notes that change has not come due to elected officials fear of losing reelections if they are appear “soft” on juvenile sex offenders.
Nonetheless, Pittman has teamed up with R Street Institute, a conservative think tank in Washington, D.C., to focus on revising a single clause of the Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act: rather than mandating that states include juvenile sex offenders on a public registry, require states to eliminate juvenile registration and withhold federal funds from states that fail to comply. The savings in taxpayer money could then be used for programs that prevent childhood sexual assault.
[i] Associated Press, Mark Lunsford’s Son, 18, Accused of Sexual Conduct With Minor, FOX News, (May 31, 2007). Available at http://www.foxnews.com/story/2007/05/31/mark-lunsford-son-18-accused-sexual-conduct-with-minor.html.
[iii] Sarah Stillman, The List: When Juveniles are Found Guilty of Sexual Misconduct, the Sex-Offender Registry Can be a Life Sentence, The New Yorker, (March 14, 2016). Available at http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2016/03/14/when-kids-are-accused-of-sex-crimes.