Should We Be Labeling Juvenile Sex Offenders?

CYRR Director Nicole Pittman and Dr. Tom Tobin, vice-chair of the California Sex Offender Management Board, join KQED Forum to discuss the ways in which youth and adult offenses differ and why there is no such thing as juvenile sex offenders.

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KQED Forum
Tue, Mar 22, 2016

RACHAEL: From KQED public radio in San Francisco I’m Rachael Myrow in for Michael Krasny.

The State’s sex offender registry includes a large number of people who committed their

offenses while juvenile and a large number of those offenses are not the horrific crimes we

think of when we think of sexual offenses. I’m talking about teenage romance or flashing

younger siblings. Some experts say it’s time to take these people off the list, and reserve that

list for credible threats to public safety. Joining us to have this discussion today, we have on the

phone Dr. Tom Tobin, vice chair of the California Sex Offender Management Board and a

licensed clinical psychologist who works on the treatment of sex offenders. Thank you for

joining us this morning.

TOM: Thank you, it’s a pleasure to be here.

R: And here in studio, we have Nicole Pittman, Director of the Center on Youth Registration

Reform and with Impact Justice based in Oakland. Thanks so much for coming over the bridge.

NICOLE: Thank you, thanks for having me.

R: Uh, Nicole, why don’t we start with you. Tell me a little bit about your work. You have talked

to a lot of people for whom this situation is a lifetime crisis.

N: Yes. In just one period, I talked to about 500 people that were raised on registries, meaning

that they went on the registry under the age of 18. Many of the kids that I met were, went on

the registry at 8, 9, 10, 11 years old. When I met them they were 28, 30 years old, and still had a

lifetime to register. And, we estimate that there are probably about 200,000 kids or people on

the registry that went on –

R: Across the country?

N: Across the country. Correct. Yes. That went on as children.

R: And, how – do you have a sense of like, what, percentage we’re talking about kids who, you

know, maybe it was a 17-year-old and a 15-year-old who got involved with each other? Or the

flashing suggest- example that I offered in the introduction?

N: The offenses range, and, the statistic – they range from playing doctor, to urinating in public,

public streaking, all the way up to the – what you might call the forcible rape. The thing is that

these are children, and they’re also spending time in juvenile facilities, getting treatment, and

then registration attaches. So one thing we’re talking about is, is it necessary to put a lifelong

consequence on a child when we have so many other effective means in place.

R: Uh, Dr. Tobin, I’m wondering if you can talk a little bit about how ideas have changed in

psychology over the last 30, 40-years about how one responds when there’s a troubling

incident involving juvenile sex offenders.

T: Well, I think that, uh, first of all I need to clarify that I’m speaking for myself, and, I’m not

able to speak for the Sex Offender Management Board. But, uh, I will certainly speak for myself

on these issues. Um, the criminal justice system has for many many years made a distinction

between juvenile sex offenders and adult offenders, and has seen juveniles as much more

amenable to rehabilitative efforts. And, in recent years, that has only accelerated and gotten

stronger because of the research that has been done around neuropsychology and brain

development and the differences between juveniles and adults in that respect. So, there’s,

there’s a huge difference it’s now widely recognized, and the field of sex offender management

and treatment has I think always recognized those differences and tried to treat those two

different groups in very different ways.

R: Um, well, Nicole, come back at that. Is it the case that the response to children has changed

over the years, or were policies set in place back in the “get tough on crime” era that continue

today?

N: Unfortunately when it comes to sex offender registration and notification we haven’t

changed at all how we are – our approach to children. Uh, and, treatment might be different,

but when it comes to registration, since the 90s – some people call this the last gasp of the 90s

when we were looking at the “superpredator” and thinking children were somebody to be

feared. And, we are still basically, for this instance, we are treating children just exactly the

same as adults by putting them on a registry, putting them on a website, and uh, keeping them

from child protection safety zones, we are treating them just as harshly as adults in this

situation. And these are also kids that have gone through juvenile court, as Dr. Tobin was

saying, not adult court, juvenile court.

R: Nicole, can you share with us one of the many stories that you’ve heard. Tell us how this

plays out in a child, and then an adult’s life when they’re put on the registry.

N: Yeah, right now we have a young man that comes and visits us frequently and he grew up in

Richmond, he did have sex with a – he was 14, he was dating a 12-year-old – um, she couldn’t

consent to sex because the age of consent was under the age of 13. So that’s basically

considered a sex offense. And, he’s been on the registry, he went on the registry after, um,

stealing a vehicle and going to DJJ. He is now 28-years-old and still registering. He just went

through a bout of homelessness because he can’t live in San Francisco. He just moved to

Oakland and he’s living in SRO hotels. And, uh, he’s going to be on the registry for life. Um,

someone did try to attack him the other day, because when you look on the registry all you see

is that his victim was under 12. You don’t realize that he was 14-years-old. And so this is not

abnormal. This is the common story for many children being raised on registries.

R: You, you mentioned earlier what was it 200,000 for – for – the nation. Do we have a sense of

what it is for California?

N: California I believe, Dr. Tobin could probably tell you better. I believe it’s over 100,000 now.

R: Is it 100,000, Dr. Tobin?

T: Well, uh, that’s a tricky number. Um, first of all, that would be the number when we start

with when we’re talking about adults. Uh, our – our – people on the registry in California. But

that includes adults, as well. So, in California I think we have been able to maintain a position

that does recognize the differences to a great extent and in California we don’t register nearly

as many – fortunately nearly as many – juvenile sex offenders as we do adults. Uh, when you look at that

over 100,000 then I think you have to break it down a little bit more and say that um, about

70,000 of those are living in the community. The others are incarcerated, um, or at some other

status. Um, the sex offender management board has been and will continue to be advocating

very strongly that lifetime registration in California is a policy mistake that really is doing no

good and is doing quite a bit of damage and is making the registry uh so huge as to be

ineffective and unwieldy. Um, and –

T: What we know is that the registry does not really reduce recidivism. It does not really – it’s

not effective. In the ways that many people think it is. So to take an ineffective policy and apply

it to juveniles just because, dot dot dot, whatever reasons people have, or allege, just makes no

policy sense whatsoever. So I think, uh, that that Nicole and I are very much on the same page

here, that that registering juveniles um using a system that does not accomplish what many

people think it does accomplish, um, and that destroys lives, and that does not reduce

reoffending, uh is, is very bad policy.

R: Uh, Doctor, these are strong words and we’re hearing them from different parts of society

now, where are we in terms of the political process of of getting this policy reformed?

T: Well, the sex offender management board is trying to make movement in that direction. Um,

it will of course require legislative and – legislative action – and a governor’s signature to

change the state law. Um, but there’s some hopeful sign that people are beginning to

understand that we are shooting ourselves in the foot here instead of doing something that’s

productive and useful.

R: Um, Nicole, anything you want to add to that? I mean it is interesting to hear both of you

coming at this from different perspectives, different life experiences, agreeing so fulsomely.

N: It is quite an incredible achievement, incredible. I’m also working with conservatives across

the aisle around the country, so it is a bipartisan issue, as well. Uh, a lot of people just aren’t

aware that it’s happening, so it is – it takes messengers like Dr. Tobin. Um, Rosenberg

foundation has also helped commit money to give a fellowship to help me work just specifically

on California. And so I hope to work with Dr. Tobin and the sex offender management board

and legislators on changing these policies here in the state.

R: Um, am I right in thinking that in California you need to uh be uh required to be incarcerated

in a DJJ juvenile lockup before you’re put on the registry?

N: Yes, and so in order for – it’s not considered an automatic state, California’s not automatic

so, unlike different other states, a child might have a adjudication for an offense, and it doesn’t

automatically trigger registration. It’s when they go into the DJJ the prison – juvenile prison –

that registration is triggered. And so some of the things that we try to look at are are there

disparities attached to this. As we know, there are a great number of black and brown kids that

are locked up, more so than other kids. So how does that affect the registry, and our outcomes,

is something that we’re looking at.

R: You know I’m curious, this is, this is such a particular subject. How did you get involved with

it?

N: Yeah, I was a public defender in New Orleans and then Philadelphia and I noticed with

public defenders as well, there were many public defenders who were really dropping the ball,

and I mean some of the most staunch public defenders – myself included – and we just didn’t

understand or want to understand child sexuality and we just shut our eyes to it, didn’t listen,

and so we were dropping – we were lowering the level of defense that our children were owed.

And so when you start to think about even in the defense and in the courtroom if we’re not

doing the right job what’s happening around the country in other areas.

R: Dr. Tobin, ah, you know, even even going back 25, 30, 40 years to when people were at the

height of that kind of “get tough on crime” hysteria I’m still thinking that so many of the

prosecutors making these decisions, and you know, e-even the psychotherapists would’ve been

parents, would’ve been aunts and uncles of children, and, and you know been aware that kids

act out in all sorts of ways um, and I’m not speaking about the super serious violent acts, but

you know, flashing your siblings, that kind of thing. It just stuns me, uh, especially reading an

article that I recommend everyone read in the New Yorker Magazine, the March 14th issue, um,

it’s called “When Children are Accused of Sexual Offenses” by Sarah Stillman, and some-many

of the stories there are from Texas, but still, I-I had trouble getting into the mind of a

prosecutor who would decide that a kid was worth throwing in the slammer for something that

it seems would be more appropriate for a discussion with a parents.

T: Absolutely, I-I couldn’t agree more. And I think that there is a level of, uh, group or cultural

insanity that, that kind of takes over and clouds our eyes so that we can’t really see, number

one, the child’s life and future, and number two, we can’t-we don’t allow ourselves to take in

what the research really says. There’s just, um, an excellent, uh-uh, publication that was done

out of – with funding with the United States Department of Justice’s SMART office. Um, it has a

strange acronym – SOMAPI, S-O-M-A-P-I – but this is a group of experts convened by the

Federal um Department of Justice to take a look at all of these issues, and, uh, they put out a

report it’s available if you google S-O-M-A-P-I. That’s where you will tap into the research that,

in effect says, um, this doesn’t really make sense to register juveniles and this panel of experts

basically has done the research, says we recommend that-that juvenile registration, uh, not be

expanded, not be continued, but that uh, additional research needs to be done to prove that it

has any effectiveness whatsoever. So I think somehow we get- we get a little crazy about sex

offenders and sex offenses and, uh, stop thinking in a very clear rational way. We-we hate it

when we hear these stories, we think of the damage done to the victims, and we think that

somehow getting tough instead of getting smart is going to somehow make up for that or stop

it from happening in the future. M-most of us who know the research know that that’s just not

true, and it isn’t effective.

R: We’d love to have you join the conversation dear listener. Give us a ring at 866-733-6786.

And now (Laughs) that you’re ready to take that number down 866-7333-6786. Email us at

forum@kqed.org. Tweet to @kqedforum. Um, Nicole Pittman, you know I’m wondering –

we’ve been talking about uh, kids whose uh, defenses are uh, don’t seem like they merit being

–putting them on a sex offender registry, certainly one that would hold them uh to that label

for the rest of their lives. But there is a percentage of kids who are deeply deeply troubled who

do horrible things and, you know, it seems as a parent, as a society, we need to protect

potential victims from that kind of kid, even if he or she is a kid.

N: That could-that’s correct-and the, the issue is do we need to put children on lifetime

registries, uh, and the answer’s no. And the reason is because overwhelmingly children grow

out of sexual offending behavior with very little intervention –

R: So that’s like 95% according to the researchers, but, I guess I’m talking about the 5%.

N: And the 5% we have treatment, we have great treatment providers like Dr. Tobin, and also

we have – the thing is, when we talk about sexual harm, most children commit sexual harm in

the families. A registry is there to notify people of outside danger and strangers, and so we’re

talking about a family, and one thing that I like to say is that when interviewing many families

we also interviewed many victims which were siblings, and one young woman said to me –she

was 22, and her brother went on the registry – and she said “what people don’t know, and I

want lawmakers to know, is a child on the registry is a family on the registry and also a victim

on the registry.” We’re registering families and people that have been harmed because their

numbers, their addresses are on the website as well in many cases.

R: So you’re saying sometimes people will see that and think, oh my gosh, there’s a sex

offender uh, on my block, I’m gonna go and kill that dog that I see at that address, without

thinking about who else is there.

N: Absolutely. We’ve had homes being burnt down where the victim and the person that

committed harm – a child – are living, or the child has moved from that place. But also it very

much links the victim, when we have a close connection, a family member, and so we’re not

doing any good to the families at all. And we’re actually hurting victims. The other thing I’d like

to talk about is that with the 500 kids that I interviewed, we went back and studied, and of

those 500, a hundred percent were victims of neglect and abuse right before committing the

crime that put them on the registry. So again, we’re just not treating – we’re not treating

trauma. We’re putting also victims on the registry.

R: Let’s go to the phones now. We’ve got Christy in Napa.

CHRISTY: Hello, uh, my comment on this topic is that I come from the perspective of a former

juvenile public defender in Washington State in the early years of my career. And one of the

things that I think might be missing from this conversation is that the prosecutors, the judges,

and the public defenders all have to deal with the laws that have been passed by the legislature

in regards to children and children’s crimes and legislators tend to overreact. I dealt with this in

a very specific way when, uh, the Washington State Legislature decided to do a mandatory

sentence for juveniles who wrote any kind of a bomb threat or any kind of a threat inside of a

school. And, anyone who was convicted or pled guilty automatically had 30 days in juvenile

detention. And I’ll take any comments off air, thank you.

R: Dr. Tobin, anything you want to add to that? I mean, it seems like a good point. We’ve been-

we’ve been I guess uh blasting prosecutors, but-but sometimes prosecutors and judges, their

hands are tied.

T: Uh, well, that’s definitely the case, and I think that uh, what the situation politically and in

terms of policy reminds me of is global warming, where the scientific evidence is pretty clear, at

least, I’m sure some callers will call in and say “no it’s not” but, uh, it’s pretty clear and yet

policy makers seem to be very reluctant to take it seriously. The same thing is true, and I’ve

testified a number of times before the California legislature that uh, you can provide them with

the research, you can provide them with the – with the solid, um, information and they will go

ahead and vote the other direction because it’s politically expedient, I don’t even really

understand why. But, uh, to not take evidence, facts, reality seriously when making these

extremely impactful policies, um, is always astonishing to me.

R: Well, thanks so much for that comment. Suzie in south San Francisco.

SUZIE: Oh hi, thanks for taking my call. I just wanted to mention that there are instances where

victims end up with the short end of the stick on this, and, the reason I’m saying that is my

daughter had an instance where she was 6-years-old with her cousin who was 15. We dealt

with it as parents at the time and uh, fast forward 10-years, I wanted to talk to her about it. She

was then 15, and I said, you know, would you like to talk to a therapist about what happened

with – you know – when you were so young, and, you know, now that she was 15 she was

thinking, wow that’s so weird that he did that to me. And it turns out that if I wanted her to a

therapist, that therapist is then obligated to report the incident and put him on the sex

offenders list. Obviously I don’t want to go down that path but now I’m between a rock and a

hard place and I can’t really get professional help for her, I just have to deal with it on my own

as a parent and figure it out.

R: Dr. Tobin, this is a very good point. Licensed psychotherapists are – what is it – mandated

reporters? What’s the phrase?

T: Yes, that’s correct. And unfortunately in California there’s been a bizarre public policy twist

on that so that even if the identity of the perpetrator is not ever mentioned a report still has to

be made. Um, this has become very controversial because there are people who would like to

seek help who see themselves as in danger of perpetrating, but they are unable to do so

because they know that they would be uh uh have to be reported. So it’s a strange situation

that we’ve boxed ourselves into. When the young woman turns 18, that will no longer be the

case, but that seems pretty bizarre to say, oh well, just wait 3-years because then you can talk

openly. Um, but, uh it’s very unfortunate.

R: I should uh, mention because I referenced uh an article in the March 14th issue of the New

Yorker that uh, Forum has that link up on our website. So, just head there if you want to read

up on it. Unfortunately we don’t have quite enough time to, uh, to go into great detail over it.

Uh, Nicole uh Pittman, I’m wondering if you can sort of come back at this question. Like, what if

we just made the registry more detailed, so that you can read that your neighbor – this whole

thing happened when she was 9, she’s 38 now, to allow people to sort of realize the that she

may not be an imminent threat to the community?

N: Well, I go back to the the question from the caller, too. And the problem is that – and that’s

a great plight that many families feel, is that they don’t want to get a family member in trouble,

and I feel for that person, and the problem is that when we have these types of really really

deep-end laws where you can’t get off, uh, families struggle with it, and no one is getting help.

And so, one of the things we’re trying to do at the Center on Youth Registration Reform at

Impact Justice is, uh, we are working with lawmakers and conservatives across the aisle and

giving them the courage to pass these laws and change the laws, and getting children off of

registries will actually free up resources to help go towards treatment for victims and for

people that have committed sexual harm. And that’s something that we want to do. We’re

spending millions and billions of dollars on registering children when we can actually find a way

to treat and make – and make families more whole, and heal.

R: So who’s standing in the way of these efforts?

N: Right now, really no one. We are getting across the aisle, and we’re trying to get states to

fall. We’re going state by state, and we’re also working with Congress. So, it’s a little hard in an

election year to work with Congress on that, but some of the-the top people that are working

on this, and even National Center for Missing and Exploited Children is starting to see some of

the ways about this – they pushed some of the federal laws that are there and existing. But

really no one. Um, we even had in the New Yorker, which is a great piece, the first woman to

advocate for sex offender registration laws, Patty Wetterling, in 1989 speaking out against

placing children on registries, and she’s mentioned –

R: Wow, so that’s coming around, yeah –

N: Coming around completely. Where she says this wouldn’t have helped find her son. These

laws.

R: In California, where do things stand? Because of course, things are different state by state

and California seems to have some pretty tough rules.

N: California does have some tough rules. And we’re also working with RSOL, California RSOL,

one of the things that they’re doing is just trying to get even tier levels where people aren’t just

going for – everybody on there is on there for life, um, so there is some work on the adult side.

We’re working, as I said, Rosenberg Foundation has recently given funding to help work on the

juvenile side.

R: Chris in San Jose emails “as a prosecutor in juvenile court for over 20 years, I want to warn

against choosing the least case. In almost all cases in California, the offender committed a

violent sex crime that destroyed the victims lives. Also, the registration requirement could’ve

been waived by the parole board. I can see eliminating registration for juvenile sex offenders cases as a policy since the worst can be tried as adults, but let’s be fair. California only requires very limited registration and mostly for the worst offenders.” Nicole Pittman, he seems to be arguing that there-there is some intelligence going behind the way these kids are processed.

N: And, I-I would say that there really is not. One thing is that, uh, a lot of what we’re doing is

we’re using fear. And children can be treated. Again, going back to the percentage – over 20-

years we’ve been placing children on registries, and the recidivism rate keeps getting lower or

stays the same. And the other thing about that is that um if we – we also are hurting children

that have been harmed and putting them on registries. So we’re not addressing where the root

of the problem’s coming from.

R: Let’s go to the phones again, and Michele in Iowa.

MICHELE: Hi. Uh are you –

R: Hi Michele. Yes, what’s your question.

M: Um, it’s more of a comment than a question. My son uh committed a sexual act at the age

of 13 and the thing that I really wanted to highlight was not only the prevalence and you know,

over – the prevalence of children that are, um, minorities, but also the prevalence of children

that are disabled. Because they don’t understand the social cues. Uh, they don’t understand

boundaries as well.

R: So like, kids on the autism spectrum, maybe some developmental disabilities –

M: Absolutely. If my son hadn’t had the parents that he had, that he has, this could’ve been

much much worse off for him. Um, it was basically, you know, from the records that we read, it

was basically just a, um, you know, a typical child sexual experimenting event. There was no

force, nothing. And, um –

R: Michele, we just have a few seconds left. I – I want to thank you for sharing that experience.

And, any last thoughts as we wrap up this half hour, Nicole Pittman, uh about what Michele has

just told, shared with us.

N: Yes, and that’s a great point, and there are many kids, I don’t know if this is a spectral

disorder, where social cues are also, like you were saying, misinterpreted, where children are

actually taught to touch, and they’re being criminalized. It’s about criminalizing child sexuality,

and just child behavior. And, we really have to start talking about it, and looking, and thinking,

and not criminalizing a child for life.

R: Thank you so much for joining us today Nicole Pittman, Director of the Center on Youth

Registration Reform, and Dr. Tom Tobin, Vice Chair of the California Sex Offender Management

Board, and a licensed clinical psychologist. Continue the conversation online. This is Forum on

KQED public radio, I’m Rachael Myrow.