LEF Exclusive Interview with Nicole Pittman of Impact Justice
Nicole Pittman is a Vice President and Director at Impact Justice, a non-partisan organization dedicated to achieving common-sense reforms to the criminal justice system in the United States of America. She has spent more than a decade challenging the wisdom of registration and notification laws through extensive research in the field, including work focused on disproportionate impact to members of the LGBT community. In this exclusive interview with Liberty Education Forum, Ms. Pittman discusses her work and her vision for a more just criminal justice system in the United States.
When did state and federal courts start putting LGBTQ youth on sex offense registries?
When first adopted, federal sex offender registration and notification laws (known as “Megan’s Law”) neither required nor prohibited inclusion of children . Despite the fact that there was no research that placing children on sex-offense registries was pragmatic or effective, states rashly began to include youth on registries in the early 90s. This treatment of youth, fueled by overheated rhetoric portraying youth as “superpredators,” has since discredited yet our country continued to register children. In 2006, Congress, passed the Federal Sex Offender Registration and Notification Act (SORNA), the first federal law that explicitly required all states and territories to add kids to registries. Again, this law was passed without any examination of whether youth registration was effective or prudent. From the outset, LGBTQ youth have likely been overrepresented on these lists due to systemic and social biases.
In addition to pervasive implicit discrimination in the justice system that affects LGBTQ kids, there are laws on the books in some states that explicitly discriminate against LGBTQ youth. Many states still have and use laws criminalizing same-sex sexual activity post-Lawrence v. Texas (2003), which ruled these statutes unconstitutional, and law enforcement use these laws to target or prosecute LGBTQ youth.
Preliminary findings show that several states are improperly criminalizing LGTBQ kids via a loophole in the Lawrence v. Texas US Supreme Court decision. Justice Anthony Kennedy’s majority opinion included the phrase: “[the] present case does not involve minors, which this comment will refer to as “the minor exception.’” Kennedy was referring to adult-on-minor sexual conduct, but some states have wrongfully interpreted the phrase to mean that the decision doesn’t apply to consenting activity between LGBTQ youth. Texas law, for example, has a “Romeo and Juliet” statute that protects youth under 18 from prosecution for statutory rape but only between teen partners of “different sexes.” So, a 17 year-old girl who has consenting sex with a 15 year-old boy in Texas can’t be found guilty of rape and placed on the registry, but a 17 year-old girl who has sex with her 15 year-old girlfriend can.
Are LGBTQ youth being placed on sex offense registries throughout the United States or is the practice concentrated to a specific region in the United States that has stricter laws?
Forty states include place kids on sex offense registries. Ten states and the District of Columbia have never included youth tried in juvenile court on sex offense registries – and are just as safe if not safer than the 40 that do. The content of youth registration laws varies widely from state to state, and each state has its own list of offenses that trigger registration. Oftentimes laws are written based on the age of the victim without regard for the age of the person who commits the act. For example, a 12-year-old kid who texts a naked picture of himself to a classmate can be charged with distribution of child pornography in many states, or a 14-year-old who has consensual sex with a boyfriend who is a year and a half younger can be charged with 1st degree rape if that partner is under a certain age. Many youth are included on registries for normal or experimental behavior, including streaking, sexting, “playing doctor” or having a relationship with someone a couple of years different in age. Kids also do commit more serious harm; but the most important thing to recognize is that regardless of the behavior type research shows registering youth does nothing to protect the public.
Instead it causes serious damage to communities, families, and the youth themselves.
States also vary widely in the requirements they place on youth who register. Many states including Florida, South Carolina, and California register youth for life. South Carolina, which has some of the harshest and most expansive youth registration laws and requires lifelong registration with no minimum age for things as petty as flashing, requires many youth on registries to wear GPS ankle monitors for the rest of their lives. That means an 8-year-old kid who touches a neighbor while playing a game will be labeled a “sex offender” and may be required to wear an ankle monitor until death. Some states and localities also often have “child safety zone” restriction laws, which ban registrants, including children themselves, from coming within 1,000 feet of anywhere kids might congregate, such as schools, parks, etc. Many states include youth on public registry websites, and/or notify community members of a person’s status on the registry. Louisiana and Oklahoma, for instance, require youth to carry around driver’s licenses stamped “sex offender.” Other places require kids to post signs on their lawns that say “sex offender lives here.”
All youth on registries face lifelong barriers to jobs, housing, and education. They are kicked out of school. Almost 50 percent become homeless. Most suffer severe mental health consequences; 1 in 5 will attempt suicide.
Do heterosexual counterparts receive these cases at the same rate as their gay counterparts? If not, why?
There is mounting anecdotal evidence that the education, child welfare and legal systems target LGBTQ youth, for a wide-range of normative and experimental sex-related behavior that is treated as benign by straight/cisgender youth. But the short answer is: there is little existing research on disparities. The Center on Youth Registration Reform (CYRR) at Impact Justice has made this area and are currently building relationships with LGBTQ organizational partners who can work with us on this issue.
A report, called Give the Kid a Break — But Only if He’s Straight, found that LGBTQ young people beckon harsher punishments than their straight, gender conforming classmates. In the study, participants suggested disciplinary consequences for various individuals who had sex with a 14-year-old. A 16-year-old straight culprit was much less likely to end up on the registry than a gay 16-year-old.
LGBTQ youth are disproportionally pushed out of their homes and have high rates of homelessness and child welfare system involvement. In the child welfare system, kids are essentially parented by “mandatory reporters,” who are required to report even the most benign behaviors like walking around naked in a group foster home. Meanwhile, homeless youth are often arrested for survival and public nuisance crimes, including things like public urination and sex work, which can be registerable. Trans youth in particular are at higher risk of arrest for sex work, often due to discriminatory stereotypes, whether or not they are actually engaging in it. Some studies have also looked at bias in court decision-making, and found that LGBTQ kids in general are punished more harshly in the juvenile justice system.
We urgently need more research to paint a clear picture of how and why LGBTQ youth are ending up on registries and at what rates.
Who are the people putting LGBT youth on the sex offense registries? Families, friends, or partners?
Frequently, the parent of a teen’s partner will report the teen if they are older. Sometimes, it’s a neighbor, friend, or teacher. As mentioned, sometimes LGBTQ homeless kids are just more visible to police, who target them for arrest at higher rates. And, sometimes LGBTQ youth in the child welfare system are reported for behavior that would have warranted a stern talking to if they lived in family members’ homes.
At the moment can someone be removed from the sex offense registry? If so how?
In theory, a child can be removed from the registry after a period of time. Many states allow youth to come off of the sex-offense registry after a certain number of years, and/or to petition to come off of the registry under certain conditions.
In practice, however, placing a child on the sex-offense registry is a permanent mark that causes irreparable harm. Their communities still know that they were on the registry, and in the age of the internet the stigma of the “sex offender” label can be impossible to shake. For LGBTQ kids this is only compounded by homophobia or transphobia. States and local governments often subject children on registries to some form of notice to the public about their registration status. Even in states where youth are not listed on a public registry website, the public is often notified through other means – public meetings, fliers, and newspaper announcements, for example. Some jurisdictions have expanded notification to include highway billboards, postcards, lawn signs, and publicly available and searchable websites produced by private entities.
In jurisdictions limiting disclosure of registry information only to law enforcement agencies (also known as “non-public” disclosure), a child’s information is often still disseminated publicly. Members of the public can obtain information on non-public registrants upon request and, with a few clicks of a button, widely disseminate a child’s photograph and personal information.
In most instances, youth who are tried in juvenile court have their records sealed and are able to put their youthful indiscretions behind them. However, youth adjudicated of sexual offenses can never move on from their indiscretions. Placing youth on sex offense registries undermines the rehabilitative ideals of juvenile court, saddling youth with lifelong consequences.
What can be done to help LGBT youth get off of the sex offense registry?
The Center on Youth Registration Reform is working to eliminate the practice of placing children on sex offense registries in the United States. We are building partnerships with lawmakers and influencers from across the political spectrum and working closely with survivors’ groups, researchers, treatment providers, and other likely and unlikely allies to build support for change. We provide support, education, and comprehensive guidance to state and federal lawmakers as they seek to improve public safety by removing youth from registries.
Additionally, the Center conducts innovative research and works to elevate the stories of those impacted by registries. We believe that to end youth registration – and to stop the unfair criminalization of LGBTQ youth – we need to humanize the issue. We are launching a multi-media campaign to share stories, and want to specifically highlight the unjust treatment of LGBTQ kids. If you are part of an organization or community network and know a child affected by these laws, please get in touch with us. We can keep names and faces anonymous, and believe in giving young folks the chance to reclaim their narratives.
As the only organization solely dedicated to ending youth registration, our biggest need right now is funding and partners to join the fight. One major priority is finding the means to research the rates of registration among LGBTQ youth and the mechanisms by which LGBTQ youth are being disparately included on registries.
Click here to read this interview on Liberty Education Forum’s website.