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Young People Caught in the Net of Sex Offender Registries

Riya Saha Shah and Jennica Janssen


  • The Sex Offender Registration and Notification Act and state registries impose severe obstacles on children, such as barriers to housing, employment, and education, along with significant psychological and physical harm.
  • Registries impact vulnerable groups disproportionately, often criminalizing behaviors ranging from consensual sex to serious offenses without considering individual circumstances or the potential for rehabilitation.
  • Public awareness about the negative impact of registration on children is low, but when informed, many oppose it.
  • Effective interventions and treatments exist for addressing problematic sexual behaviors, emphasizing the need for rehabilitative rather than punitive measures for youth.
Young People Caught in the Net of Sex Offender Registries
Phynart Studio via Getty Images

There is no question what the label of “sex offender” means. It carries presumptions about an individual’s dangerousness. It communicates that the person is likely to engage in sexually violent behavior and therefore the public needs protection from that person. Yet, this label is false for thousands of children across the country who live on sex offender registries.

Research shows that over 97 percent of youth who are adjudicated delinquent of sexual offenses do not reoffend. Therefore, the intended goal that sex offender registries have in protecting public safety is not advanced by youth registration.

In 2006, the federal Adam Walsh Act enacted the Sex Offender Registration and Notification Act, which required states to maintain sex offender registries that included youth adjudicated delinquent of certain sex offenses. Yet, even well before 2006, the majority of states were already placing children on sex offender registries. Today, 39 states place children on their sex offender registries. Registration can be for a set duration of time or for the child’s entire lifetime. It imposes tremendous obstacles to young people’s reentry, placing insurmountable barriers to securing housing, obtaining employment, enrolling in secondary education, and even daily activities such as travel, visiting family, and navigating public benefits. These barriers interfere with young people’s reintegration into their communities and can also impose physical and psychological harm.

Sex offender registries include children who have engaged in sexual behaviors ranging from consensual sex to serious criminal sexual offenses. These registries disproportionately impact Black, Brown, and indigenous youth, youth with disabilities, and LGBTQ+ youth. Rather than investing in prevention, intervention, and treatment for these behaviors, criminalization and subsequent registration target young people and their families, imposing a lifelong label that stigmatizes children. Often children who are labeled as sex offenders have themselves been victims of sexual abuse. Many have intellectual disabilities. A large percentage of youth on the registry are either in group home settings or in foster homes, where they are subject to over-surveillance and mandatory reporting laws that can push them into the criminal system. And a number of registered youth have engaged in consensual sexual activity with a peer.

Despite the individual circumstances of the child, the label is imposed indiscriminately in many states and lasts a child’s entire lifetime, sometimes even imposing legal requirements to notify the child’s community of the child’s registration status. Importantly, even when there exist mechanisms for removal from the registry after some duration of time, the stigma attached to the label is permanent.

Registration is intended as a public safety measure, yet most members of the public are unaware of the harm registration causes or even that registration is a punishment that is imposed on children. A recent study shows that when people are educated about how registration is defined and imposed, the public does not generally agree with it.

In an unpublished research study completed for the dissertation by Dr. Jennica Janssen, one of the coauthors of this article, 1,384 survey participants were provided detailed scenarios of children who had committed sexual offenses of varying severity and asked to react. After reading the vignette, participants were asked a series of questions regarding notification, registration, and opinions about the described youth. Nearly 60 percent of the individuals who participated in the study disagreed or strongly disagreed that registration was appropriate (58.7 percent).

Nearly three-fourths of those surveyed did not fear the youth described in the vignette (72.3 percent) and two-thirds did not believe that their community would be safer if the youth were registered as a sex offender (61 percent).

At least ten states impose community notification requirements on individuals registered as sex offenders. These laws may require youth to post fliers in their community with their photograph and registration status listed or mail postcards to neighbors within a one-mile radius indicating their registration status and home address. Over half of participants in the research study opposed laws requiring children on the registry to notify their communities of their registration status (51.9 percent). Yet, these laws remain and have the potential to further harm children and their families who become targets of violence when the community is notified.

Several states also impose residency restrictions for registered youth. This could mean that children are unable to live with their families if other children live in the home or that the entire family must relocate farther away from a school or church. The majority of individuals surveyed disagreed that such laws should be applied to children on registries. (63.9 percent).

Research shows that problematic sexual behaviors can be addressed through interventions and treatment. Indeed, almost 85 percent of individuals believed that with the right support and treatment, a youth who was subject to registration was capable of rehabilitation. However, in 39 states, laws demonize and criminalize children who engage in sexual misconduct. Children need interventions that are evidence-based and rehabilitative. Labeling children as sex offenders and placing them on registries does neither of those things.

For detailed information on each state’s youth sex offender registration law, see the Juvenile Law Center’s report Labeled for Life: A Review of Youth Sex Offender Registration Laws (August 2020).

For information on how sex offender registration harms children, see “Ten Ways Youth Sex Offender Registration Harms Kids,” an article by one of the coauthors of this article, Riya Saha Shah, published by the Children’s Rights Committee (December 2018), and for information on what to communicate about youth registration to child clients, see “Five Things Child Clients Need to Know About Sex Offender Registration Laws,” another article by Riya Saha Shah, published by the Children’s Rights Committee (August 2020).