Should Kids Be Listed as Sex Offenders?

Shawn Murphy admits he forced his 11-year-old cousin to have sex with him, but when many of the people who know him in the eastern Iowa town of Russell found out about his crime, they said that since he's done his time and is going through therapy, he should be forgiven.

Maybe that's because Murphy, an 18-year-old senior at Russell Community School, was just 13 when he committed the crime. Maybe it's because Murphy seemed just like any other teenager, until he turned 18 and, in accordance with Iowa law, his name was posted on the state's sex offender registry Web site.

Some parents were angry that they did not know there was a sex offender walking the halls of the school, which is attended by 150 students from pre-K through grade 12. They wanted him thrown out of school and were furious at school officials.

When the school held a meeting to consider the issue earlier this month, many of Murphy's classmates showed up wearing T-shirts with slogans supporting him, and after he spoke about his crime, some hugged him in sympathy.

"I forced my cousin to have sexual intercourse with me," said Murphy, who was convicted in juvenile court of third-degree sexual assault, sent to a sex offender rehabilitation facility, and ordered to go through counseling and register as a sex offender. "I messed up, and I'm truly sorry. And nothing can change that. I hope you guys can see me for who I am, not my past."

That is the difficulty in dealing with any convicted sex offender, but the problem may be particularly troublesome when dealing with teenagers, especially when juveniles -- whether they are violent rapists or an older teen who had consensual sex with a younger boyfriend or girlfriend -- are treated the same way as adults and forced to carry the label of sex offenders.

"It causes a lot of problems and doesn't make much sense," said Gail Ryan of the National Adolescent Perpetrator Network's Kempe Children's Center. "With juveniles, we have pretty strong consensus in the field that we shouldn't be calling kids sex offenders when they're adolescents, when they're still forming their identities."

But severe punishment is important for the victims and their families, said Laura Ahearn, the director of Parents for Megan's Law, a victims' rights organization focused of child sexual abuse victims.

"Justice isn't served unless there is severe punishment for a crime that can ruin a person's life," she said.

However, she said that treatment is also important for juvenile offenders, because there is a chance that it can have an effect on their behavior once they are released from prison.

"It's more palatable for the family of a child sex abuse victim to know the perpetrator is getting treatment when the perpetrator is a juvenile, rather than an adult, because juvenile offenders have a better chance for treatment to have a result," she said. "Most people would agree you can't change a sex preference, so treatment is not going to be effective for a pedophile. No amount of treatment is going to change that."

Besides acting as a warning to the public, labeling an adult as a sex offender may be a useful rehabilitation tool because it clashes with that person's idea of who he is -- serving as a reminder of the horrible thing he has done and thus acting as a deterrent. But in the case of a juvenile, the label could become his self-image, encouraging the youth to repeat the crime.

"Calling juveniles sex offenders in and of itself is not productive," Ryan said. "It is not productive to have them thinking of themselves as sex offenders, when that's not who we want them to be."

Despite the popular perception that sex offenders are extremely likely to repeat their crimes, studies show people convicted of sex crimes have among the lowest recidivism rates of any category of criminal, and those numbers are even lower for juveniles.

"The vast majority don't continue offending as adults," Ryan said. "They're more like other delinquents than like adult sex offenders."

Various studies reviewed by the federal government's Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention found that as few as 8 percent and as many as 14 percent of juvenile sex offenders commit new sex crimes.

A meta-analysis of 61 studies of adult sex offender recidivism put the rate for child molesters at 12.7 percent and for rapists at 18.9 percent, but the studies that were involved only considered reconviction rates. A more recent longitudinal study in Canada that considered self-reported acts that were not reported to police, however, found higher recidivism rates for adults: 22 percent for incest child molesters, 19.5 percent for non-incest child molesters and 17.1 percent for rapists.

"What virtually all of the studies show, contrary to popular opinion, is that relatively few JSOs [juvenile sex offenders] are charged with a subsequent sex crime," the report said. "Whether this is due to deterrence, humiliation, lack of opportunity, clinical treatment, increased surveillance or inadequate research methodology is difficult to ascertain."

Ryan, who has studied juvenile perpetrators for 20 years, said most juvenile sex offenders commit their crimes the way some kids shoplift or commit acts of vandalism, "pushing the limits." She said that in many cases she has looked at, particularly when the offenders were extremely young, such as 12 or 13, they did not even realize what they had done was against the law.

"But the effect on their lives is so much greater that the effect of other things they might get involved in," she said.

Advocacy groups that work for child victims of sexual abuse agree that juvenile offenders should be treated differently than adults, at least in part because many such offenders are victims of abuse themselves, and because it is believed that aggressive treatment can reduce the risk that sex offenders will repeat their crimes.

Ahearn said that while juvenile sex offenders need to be severely punished, they should not have their names put on adult sex offender registry Web sites.

Instead, she said, those with a "need to know," such as school officials, should be informed if a teenager is a convicted sex offender so that appropriate precautions can be taken.

Donna Coleman, director of Children's Advocacy Alliance, said too many juvenile sex offenders were victims before they became abusers.

"We have a mental health crisis in this country, especially with kids in foster care, and a lot of kids who have committed sex crimes come out of foster care, and they are in there because somebody has acted out on them," she said. "I don't think we should label them. We should try to rehabilitate them."

Shawn Murphy, who is hoping to go to college, talked like somebody who had been rehabilitated at the meeting last week to decide whether he would be thrown out of high school just months before he was to graduate. In the end, school officials decided to allow him to receive his degree, though he was barred from attending classes for the rest of the year.

"It was a situation where we had to make a decision about his education, and he's entitled to it," said Bob McCurdy, superintendent of the Russell School District. "It is a relief to parents who had anxieties, and the diploma takes care of the young man. It was in everyone's best interests that he do that, and the board was happy to grant that."

For others who were juvenile sex offenders, being treated the same way as an adult would mean not being able to fully participate in their own children's lives, according to the founding director of Save Our TexSons, a Texas-based group that is trying to get the state to be more flexible in how it deals with youthful offenders, depending on the nature of their crime.

Save Our TexSons is focused on the kinds of cases when a teenager of 17, 18 or 19 has consensual sex with a younger teen, either in ignorance of his or her partner's real age or during an ongoing relationship, and when no force or coercion is involved.

Among the stories posted on the group's Web site are tales in which the sex offender is now married to his or her victim, and they have children, but the sex offender is barred from taking their children to day care, attending school meetings and in some cases visiting other family members because of where they live.

The group was started by three longtime friends after the teenage son of one was labeled a sex offender because, the group says, he had sex with a 14-year-old who told him she was 17.

State laws vary on how juvenile sex offenders are dealt with, and if or when their names are added to the sex offender registries.

In Iowa, for example, not every juvenile sex offender is placed on the sex offender registry Web site, and most do not wind up with their names on the list. The law says a judge can decide whether a minor must register.

Robert Blink, a former Iowa juvenile court judge, said several factors such as the age of the offender, the relationship to the victim, and the nature and severity of the offense weigh into a judge's decision. If a sex offender is under the age of 20 at the time of the offense and the victim is 14 or 15 years of age, the offender cannot be placed on the registry's Web site.

But perhaps the most important consideration, Blink said, is whether the juvenile is likely to commit another sex crime.

ABC News affiliate WOI-TV in Des Moines, Iowa, contributed to this report.