Should a 9-year-old Be Branded a Sex Offender for Life?

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An employee locks the door of a cell inside the youth detention center in Königs Wusterhausen, southeast of Berlin, on January 17. Reuters

This article first appeared on Reason.com.

Southwestern Law School professor Catherine Carpenter put it bluntly in her new research paper, "Throwaway Children: The Tragic Consequences of a False Narrative."

"Truth be told," she wrote, "we are afraid for our children and we are afraid of our children."

Carpenter’s paper explains why it’s wrong to automatically place underage perpetrators of sex crimes on the sex offender registry. This policy is guided by the mistaken presumption that these kids will become sexually predatory adults, she wrote.

This fear "is premised on a false narrative that includes flawed studies on recidivism rates and misguided case decisions that embraced these findings,” according to the paper.

Yes, flawed. Recidivism rates—the rates at which juvenile sex offenders re-offend—are so low as to be indistinguishable from the rate that non-offenders offend.

But that's not what the public believes. Instead, it believes that juvenile sex "criminals" (including a slew of teens who had consensual sex) can never stop pouncing. From Carpenter’s paper:

The utility of an overly-simplified registration scheme comes with a hefty price tag: the acknowledgement that mandatory lifetime registration captures and shatters the lives of many non-dangerous children. It is a price tag we should no longer be willing to bear.

How bad does it get for kids found guilty of a sex crime?

Fear of our children has prompted legislation that requires children as young as nine years old to register on adult sex offender registries.  

No matter whether the child’s sexual transgression is voluntary or coerced—and here the mandatory reach of the regime is underscored—many children face lifetime registration. In some jurisdictions, the offense is deemed the equivalent of a comparable adult offense under controlling federal or state law....

And in jurisdictions like California, the child is required to register for life because the state has moved to a system that subjects all sex offenders—whether adult or child—to lifetime monitoring....

Sadly, the public’s hunger to punish child sex offenders has not been diminished by reality. Registration and notification for life continue despite significant and compelling research that these laws are not effective deterrents, [and] that children who commit sexual crimes pose little danger of recidivism, [and] that children have the capacity for rehabilitation.

Their lives are effectively ruined before they have begun.

Carpenter's piece is clear and gripping. Imagine a 9-year-old branded a sex offender for life.

Lenore Skenazy is host of the reality show World’s Worst Mom on the Discovery Life Channel. She is the author of the book and blog Free-Range Kids.