Legal and Policy Implications of Registering Juvenile Sex Offenders

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The rights-based critique and policy analysis both lead to the same conclusion: the juvenile provisions of the Sex Offender Registration and Notification Act (SORNA) should be amended. Public policy is too often crafted when emotions are high. When a child suffers the horror of sexual abuse, the community understandably wants something to be done to protect that child from a reoccurrence and to protect other children from similar attacks. Yet the resulting legislation has frequently done more to undermine children’s rights than to protect children from violence. Laws affecting juvenile sex offenders should be consistent with research on adolescent brain development and empirical studies of recidivism. SORNA is based on neither of these; it has simply swept certain categories of juvenile offenders into the adult world of criminal behavior. SORNA clearly violates the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), which provides that child offenders have a right to be rehabilitated and reintegrated into the community. SORNA also violates the spirit and philosophy of decades of juvenile justice policies and practice. The CRC and the family court movement both recognize that most children learn to make more responsible choices as they mature and that juvenile offenders deserve to be given a genuine second chance. Similarly, sex offender treatment experts recognize that adolescents are not fully mature, are changeable, and are thus capable of becoming productive and law-abiding citizens. Unfortunately, there is a fundamental conflict between this view and the popular image of the sex offender, who is presumed to have a deviant and fixed preference to sexually abuse children.185 This image does not fit many of the individuals who have been ordered to register as sex offenders and it is particularly inappropriate for children.186 We do not dispute the fact that juvenile sex offenders need to be taken seriously. But legislators and policy makers should base legislation on solid research and should make an effort to comply with international standards. Rather than requiring states to register juvenile sex offenders without regard to individual circumstances, Congress should make federal funding contingent on state laws that respect children’s right to an age-appropriate proceeding and a genuine opportunity to be rehabilitated.

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Carole J. Petersen is a Professor and Director of the Spark M. Matsunaga Institute for Peace and Conflict Resolution and teaches international human rights law at the William S. Richardson School of Law, University of Hawaii at Manoa. Susan M. Chandler is a Professor of Public Administration and Director of the College of Social Sciences Public Policy Center at the University of Hawaii at Manoa.