My piece in today's New York Post will probably surprise folks who think the sex offender registry is filled with middle-aged men arrested for luring kids into white vans with the promise of puppies—or even, in a new twist, Pokemon.
But in fact, the most common age that people are charged with a sex offense is 14. That's according to the U.S. Bureau of Justice. Why so young? I explain:
Because people tend to have sex with people around their own age, which means young people tend to have sex with other young people. And much under-age sex is illegal.
So we keep throwing kids on the registry and labeling them sex offenders, as if they're incorrigible monsters. But in Britain, a study recently commissioned by Parliament has recommended a totally different course: Trying to understand, treat and refrain from labeling the kids, since children often "make mistakes as they start to understand their sexuality and experiment with it."
Of course, recognizing that young people experiment would require politicians and law enforcement to also recognize that people can do dumb things, even sexual things, and not be irredeemable monsters. Right now, that's not a big political talking point.
So instead, over one fourth of the people we label "sex offenders" get that name when they themselves are juveniles. Considering the registry has over 800,000 people on it, we're talking about more than 200,000 people who get put on the list while they are in middle school or high school.
What happens when we turn teens and even tweens into sex offenders?
The punishment and stigma can follow them for years, even decades. A study by Human Rights Watch gave the example of Jacob, a boy found guilty of inappropriately touching his sister when he was 11
Because this got him placed on the sex offender registry, he was not allowed to live near other children, including siblings. So he was sent to live in a juvenile home, and eventually placed with foster parents.
Now 26, Jacob is still on the sex-offender registry, still unable to live near a school, playground or park. (Even though study after study has shown these residency restrictions do not make the public any safer.) Meantime, he has had a hard time finding work, because who wants to hire a sex offender?
And so, concluded Human Rights Watch, "his life continues to be defined by an offense he committed at age 11" — an offense that most likely didn't indicate anything other than a young man in need of guidance.
In my piece, I also describe an incident that happened in New Jersey: Two 14-year-olds pulled down their pants and, disgustingly, sat on two 12-year-olds' faces. Gross. Reprehensible. But the punishment was even moreso.
Under Megan's Law, they are now sex offenders, on the registry…for life.
An appellate court upheld the sentence in 2011, so both young men will be on the sex-offender registry until they die. As 40-year-olds, heck, as 80-year-olds, they'll be treated as perennial perverts for something they did in junior high.
This is not only horrifying, it flies in the face of what we have learned about sex offenders (and not just the young ones), which is that contrary to public perception, the vast majority of people on the registry never offend again.
In short: Not only is the age that people get on the registry appalling, but so is the registry itself, which has been shown over and over again not to make our kids any safer.
The sex offender laws keep getting more extreme and over-reaching, because pointless excess is an easy way for politicians to act as if they care about kids and safety…while actually ruining people's lives. Including a lot of 14-year-olds.