What is the Center on Youth Registration Reform? What do you do?
The Center on Youth Registration Reform (CYRR) is a national advocacy center dedicated to ending the abusive practice of placing children on sex offender registries. CYRR works to disrupt cycles of trauma through legislative action, investment in prevention and treatment practices, and shifting the narrative of child-on-child sexual harm.
Child sexual abuse is a preventable problem, but we treat it as though it is inevitable. Rather than channeling resources into a punitive and ineffective policy, we should divert them to practices that are proven to be effective. We know what works. Registering children does not.
Can CYRR provide me with legal advice?
Unfortunately, CYRR does not provide legal services or legal advice.
Does CYRR's work cover adults or youth who are tried in adult court?
CYRR’s focus is solely on children who have been tried in juvenile court.
Who does CYRR work with?
CYRR works closely with a diverse group that includes:
- Bipartisan coalition of lawmakers
- Child welfare experts
- Law enforcement officers
- Other advocates
About Youth Registration
What is "youth registration" and why is it a problem?
The term “youth registration,” as used by CYRR, is the practice commonly referred to as “juvenile sex offender registration.” When a child is found guilty of a sex offense in juvenile court, they can be required to comply with sex offender registration and notification laws.
Currently, 38 states place kids on registries. The duty to register is triggered immediately after a child’s time is served or treatment is completed. The exact components of these laws vary from state to state, but common features include online publication of photos and personal information, residency restrictions and regular reporting to law enforcement, and failure to comply can result in criminal charges.
Subjecting youth to registration and notification laws is a clear contradiction to US philosophies of juvenile justice. When a child is tried in juvenile court, the court has affirmed the child’s actions should not define him for the remainder of his life. But when we require that child to register as a sex offender, we eliminate the possibility for true rehabilitation and restoration. The punitive impacts of registration can follow a child for decades – often for life. Despite its contradiction to the values of juvenile justice, vigorous research illustrating its collateral consequences and failure to improve public safety, this practice continues to impact the lives of upwards of 100,000 of people across the country.
Have we always placed children on registries?
Including kids on sex offender registries date back to the tough-on-crime era of the 1980s and 90’s, fueled by the myth of the “superpredator” and reactionary federal legislation.
When federal sex offender registration and notification laws were first adopted in the 1994 Wetterling Act, they neither prohibited nor required the inclusion of children who had been found guilty of a sex offense in juvenile court. During the mid-1990s, it became increasingly common for youth to be included in registries, sweeping kids as young as eight years old into a system that was intended for adults. The 2006 Adam Walsh Act’s Sex Offender Registration and Notification Act (SORNA) sought to standardize sex offender laws throughout the US. One of the established standards was the inclusion of children who had been found guilty in juvenile court of certain sex offenses.
Between this federal mandate and the punitive justice trends of the 1990s, state sex offender registries now label upwards of 100,000 people as sex offenders for their childhood actions.
What are the impacts of placing children on sex offender registries?
Youth registration triggers a range of destructive collateral consequences.
- Registered youth suffer from severe mental and emotional health issues. A recent study identified that registered children are four times more likely to have recently attempted suicide than their non-registered counterparts.
- Child registrants are targeted by vigilante violence and harassment when their status becomes public. In addition, registered youth are five times more likely to be sexually victimized by adults.
- Failing to comply with the demands of registration and notification can result in a charge for failure to register, a felony offense that can carry a lengthy prison sentence. This fuels cycles of incarceration and exacerbates the isolation and stigmatization youth registrants experience.
- Children can be forced from their homes, schools, experiencing housing instability and barriers to employment well into adulthood.
- Annual social costs of registration and notification are estimated at $3 billion.
For more details on the harms of placing children on sex offender registries and for stories from impacted youth and families, see the 2013 Human Rights Watch report Raised on the Registry.
Who is impacted by registering children as sex offenders?
A child who has committed harm is not the only person impacted by youth registration. As child-on-child sexual harm often occurs within the home, the victim can also be subjected to the harms of registration. As one impacted family member stated, “A child on the registry is a family on the registry, and often a victim on the registry.”
Kids who have to register as sex offenders may have to keep registering well into adulthood, or even for life. In turn, the harmful effects of registration and notification are passed to their children as they start families of their own.
Family instability is not the only way registry hurts victims. In a groundbreaking report, CYRR Director, Nicole Pittman, discovered 100 percent of the registrants she interviewed were also identified as victims of abuse or neglect prior to their offense. Children who caused sexual harm have frequently experienced trauma themselves. In placing them on registries, we continue to punish kids who need help.
What kinds of offenses can lead to registration?
There is no doubt that children can cause serious harm. Child-on-child sexual harm is a serious issue deserving our resources and attention. However, the majority of youth end up on registries for normative or experimental childhood sexual behavior. This can include “playing doctor,” streaking, sexting, or involvement in a Romeo and Juliet romance. Kids do commit serious and violent offenses, but it’s far less common. Furthermore, rigorous research demonstrates that registration is not an effective response to child-on-child harm, no matter how serious the offense.
Is there a way to be removed from the registry? How long do kids have to register?
The duration of a child’s duty to register can range from five years to lifetime, and begins after time is served or treatment is completed. The precise length depends on the laws in a particular state.
A handful of states have implemented tiering schemes to reduce the registration period for children. However, in Illinois, for example, a 2007 law allowing children to petition for removal from the registry did not provide legal representation. This made petitions accessible only to children with the means to hire private lawyers, excluding eligible, low-income registrants.
Even if a child is able to successfully petition for removal, it’s critical to understand the social and psychological impacts of the “sex offender” label do not stop when the duty to register ends, much as it’s impossible to “unring the bell.” Extraordinary means are required to restore the rights of a child upon removal from the registry.
How many children are on registries in the US?
The exact number is unknown. Most states that run registries do not differentiate between children and adults. Likewise, there is insufficient data capturing the age at which a person was first required to register and whether their case was heard in juvenile or criminal court. With the total number of registrants in the US at approximately 850,000 individuals, a 2013 Human Rights Watch report estimated upwards of 100,000 people were placed on the registry as kids.
Does registration improve public safety?
Registration is a one-size-fits all approach to the complex and nuanced issue of child-on-child sexual harm. There is abundant research that illustrates placing children on registries is not only harmful but entirely ineffective in promoting public safety.
- Registration and notification do not reduce recidivism rates, which are already under 3 percent.
- Registration and notification do not deter future incidents of sexual harm by first-time offenders.
There is no competing evidence that suggests registration is effective. Experts from a wide range of professional backgrounds agree that registries do not improve public safety.
Is youth registration cost-effective?
Applying registration and notification laws to youth comes at an immense cost but offers no benefit. A cost-benefit analysis calculated the net social costs of registration and notification to be $3 billion annually.
Are there alternatives to youth registration? What are they?
There are already many alternatives to youth registration already in practice. In fact, 12 states do not register children as sex offenders. These states do not experience higher levels of harm and recidivism than states that do register, and employ practices that could easily be implemented in other states.
More specifically, it is well-documented that children respond well to targeted treatment and intervention. Legal and medical professionals advocate for the investment in and expansion of evidence-based practices that can effectively treat children who have caused harm and prevent harm before it happens. The most successful involve working not just with the child, but also with the family and community in a holistic and multi-systematic approach.
About Youth on the Registry
What is the recidivism rate among children who have cause sexual harm?
Most children who have committed a sex offense will never reoffend sexually, regardless of the severity of their offense or registration status. A recent meta-analysis of data collected between 2000 to 2015 found that children who were found guilty of sexual harm in juvenile court have a recidivism rate of just 2.75 percent.
Recidivism rates are consistent regardless of the offense committed and an individual’s registration status, as multiple studies have demonstrated. Low recidivism rates are not a result of youth registration policies
Are children who have committed sex offenses different from children who have committed non-sexual offenses?
Children who have caused sexual harm are not a unique category of offender or a distinct group, and treating them as such results in ineffective policy that causes immense harm. Professionals from an array of disciplines agree that youth who have committed a sex offense are best given the same opportunities for rehabilitation and re-entry as youth who have committed non-sexual offenses.
What types of kids end up on the registry?
There is no “typical” child registrant. Any child could be subject to registration for a range of normative behaviors or for causing sexual harm, but our most marginalized children are the most at-risk.
As leading researcher Mark Chaffin stated, “youth captured under the sex offender label, although presumed to share common features, are actually incredibly diverse, and may have little in common with each other aside from their administrative classification under law and policy.”
With that said, it is clear that our most vulnerable youth are at the highest risk of being caught in the wide net of registration and notification laws. The consequences of registration fall more frequently on systematically oppressed youth including children of color, low-income youth, LGBTQ youth, neurodivergent youth, and survivors of childhood trauma. These children are also disproportionately placed in out-of-home settings where supervision is high and mandatory reporting requirements apply to even normative sexual behaviors.
Shouldn’t children who have committed sexual harm be treated like adults who have caused sexual harm?
Children who have committed a sex offense should not be treated like adults who have committed a sex offense. The reality is, children who cause sexual harm will overwhelmingly not grow up to cause future harm. Recidivism rates among youth who have committed sex offenses are extremely low, with robust and replicated data finding rates under 3 percent.
The US Supreme Court has upheld that children are fundamentally different to adults in a number of distinct ways. This holds true in cases of sexual harm. In addition to registration and notification, applying risk assessments, classification schemes, and treatment programs that were designed specifically for adults to children can also have negative consequences. Practices and policies designed for adults are not effective in addressing child-on-child sexual harm, and can often subject youth to further harm.