Should 14-Year-Olds Have to Register as Sex Offenders?

Lawsuits planned over new teen sex offender registration laws.

January 8, 2009, 12:12 AM

Aug. 16, 2007 — -- Ever since fliers calling 14-year-old Baron Brown-Lights a dangerous sex offender started to appear around his South Carolina neighborhood, he has stayed mostly inside his mother's house.

The teen was convicted last year in juvenile court of aggravated sexual assault for abusing his 4-year-old cousin. He avoided jail time, but was forced to register as a sex offender: His name, photograph, home address and school are posted online.

Baron is the state's youngest publicly registered sex offender and one of the youngest people on a sex crimes Web site nationwide. He can't go to public pools and must stay away from children under the age of 9. Certain jobs are off limits; he and his mother have had trouble finding an apartment, his mother told ABC News.

"It ruined his life," said Aries Brown, who told ABC News her son is innocent.

"One girl said she was afraid to talk to him," his mother said. "What's going to happen when he applies for a job?"

It's a question states are going to have to grapple with in the coming years. Only a handful of states now require juvenile sex offenders to post their personal information online, and some allow teens to be taken off when they turn 18.

But the Adam Walsh Act, which states must implement by 2009, requires teens as young as 14 who are convicted of certain serious sex crimes to register for life.

The act is designed to target only dangerous sexual predators. "We're talking about teens who committed incredibly horrific sex crimes," said Laura Rogers, who heads the Department of Justice office that will implement the law.

But it has raised concerns among some lawmakers and prosecutors, who fear it may sweep into its net teens who don't deserve to be permanently labeled as sex offenders. A group of civil rights attorneys and public defenders are planning nationwide challenges to the laws' constitutionality.

Prosecutors should "look at each case on an individual basis," said Susan Broderick, a former Manhattan prosecutor. "Any time you have a blanket rule, people that don't belong are going to be swept in."

 Sex Offender for Life

Baron was convicted last year in New Jersey juvenile court of aggravated sexual assault for molesting a 4-year-old cousin. New Jersey juvenile court records are not public.

When he moved to South Carolina earlier this year, Baron was placed on the state's sex offender Web site. According to Nicole Pittman, a lawyer who is leading efforts to challenge juvenile sex offender registry laws nationwide, South Carolina is one of only a few states that include juveniles in their online registries.

"It's not fair" to be placed on the registry, Baron said in a phone interview with ABC News. "An older person, probably. But a kid ? No. It's not fair."

But states that pass laws to comply with the Adam Walsh Act would require teens over 14 who commit crimes like Baron's to register for life. The act, named for the son of "America's Most Wanted" host John Walsh, requires states to pass their own juvenile sex offender registry laws by 2009. If states don't, they risk losing some federal funding.

Under the act, any juvenile delinquent over 14 who commits sexual abuse by force or threat or any sex act with a person under the age of 12 must register as a sex offender. The teens may have to post their home addresses, job location and schools online. They can apply to get off the registry after 25 years with a clean record, Rogers said.

Only a few states, such as Florida, have passed laws to comply with the act, but others will be considering it in the next two years.

Supporters say the law is needed to protect young children, and is designed to exclude all but the most serious and dangerous criminals. The Walsh Act would exempt consensual sex if the victim is at least 13 old and the offender is less than 4 years older. 

"If you're of a certain age, you should have accountability for your actions," said Florida state Sen. Jeremy Ring, a Democrat who voted for the state's juvenile sex offender law. "The victim feels a life of despair, and so should the perpetrator."

Are Teens Different?

The problem, those who study teen sex offenders say, is separating the small number of truly dangerous teens from the many who probably will not commit another sex crime.

Compared to their adult counterparts, teen sex offenders are relatively unlikely to commit sex crimes again, said Mark Chaffin, head of the Center on Child Abuse and Neglect at the University of Oklahoma and research director of the National Center on the Sexual Behavior of Youth.

Many younger teens are too young to have developed sexual tendencies and may be experimenting or acting out, said Chaffin. They are not much more likely than any other juvenile delinquent to commit a sex crime, he said. Some studies have shown that teen sex offenders have recidivism rates of 10 percent to 15 percent.

"The overwhelming majority of them do not re-offend," said Roxanne Lieb, who studies juvenile sex offenders at the Washington State Institute of Public Policy. "But within that group, there is a very small number of very dangerous individuals."

"People say, just assume that they're like little adults," Lieb said. "But there's nothing to suggest that's true." 

Rogers said that the research was inconclusive and "all over the board," adding that the Act provided the best way to find the most dangerous juvenile offenders.

Rehabilitation and Stigma

But the law has raised concerns among some policy makers and lawyers, who say the law is too broad and will brand children as sex offenders for life.

Juvenile courts, which often lean more toward rehabilitation than punishment, are different than adult criminal courts. Most do not provide the right to jury trial, and most information -- including the names of criminal defendants -- is kept private.

The public registries for juvenile court convictions, defense lawyers say, undermines the purpose of having separate courts for young criminals.

"The purpose of the juvenile court is to give children an opportunity to rehabilitate without any stigma on them," said George Kita, a former juvenile prosecutor who now works as a defense attorney in Los Angeles. "This would defeat the whole purpose of the juvenile court system."

A coalition of defense attorneys and civil rights groups are preparing legal challenges to the laws, both at state and federal levels. Lawyers in Florida say they will challenge the state's law as soon as the first juvenile is put on the online offender registry. They claim that that the law violates the Constitution, since juveniles do not have the right to a jury trial but will be punished as adults.

Nicole Pittman of the Philadelphia Public Defender's Office, who is heading a group of lawyers looking at ways to challenge the act, said she would push to pass state laws that at least require a hearing for each child before the child can be permanently placed on a public registry.

Broderick, the former juvenile crimes prosecutor, said that knowing that a teen could be registered for life could influence prosecutors' decisions on what they charge teens with. "There may be some unintended consequences here with the Adam Walsh Act," she said.

As for Baron, he and his mother said they are nervous about what will happen when the summer ends and he starts school again.

"In New Jersey, the only people who knew in school were the principal and the school officer. Nobody gets to know," Baron said. "Down here, it's on the Internet. Everybody knows."

ABC News Live

ABC News Live

24/7 coverage of breaking news and live events