By Malik Pickett and Emily Satifka . . .
Jason was 14 years old when he met his first girlfriend, a 13-year-old neighbor of the foster family with whom he lived. After a few months of dating, his girlfriend’s mother walked in on the teenagers engaging in consensual oral sex and called the police. Jason was arrested and charged with child molestation. He was adjudicated delinquent in juvenile court and placed on the California Sex Offender Registry. Before he was old enough to drive, Jason was branded a sex offender on a public, searchable website.
Now in his 30s, Jason suffers from depression and has experienced homelessness. Despite earning a college degree, he cannot find steady employment. An internet search shows he is a registered sex offender.
Jason is like many others who struggle to lead a healthy adult life because of a juvenile adjudication based on unsurprising adolescent behavior. States across the country place children as young as 8 years old on sex offender registries for conduct that is otherwise developmentally normal.
Required by federal law, this label imposes barriers on young people’s access to education, employment and safe housing. It can devastate them psychologically with little benefit to the community.
Youth sex offender registration costs the public over $3 billion a year. Rather than investing in preventive programming and victims’ services, resources are routinely allocated to a carceral and punitive response. Meanwhile, research-backed social programming and community needs remain largely underfunded.
For example, in 2017 California spent $140 million to register and monitor 3,500 youth registrants. Yet that same year, the budget for prevention programs and victims’ services was only $46,000.
In addition to the high cost of registration, sex offender registries do not advance the public safety goals for which they were created. Only 3% to 5% of youth who commit sexual offenses are likely to reoffend, showing that registration wastes resources on individuals who pose little to no risk of future harm.