Chapter 6: Registration and Notification of Juveniles Who Commit Sexual Offenses
S ex offender registration and notification has been used as a management strategy since the 1930s. California became the first state to pass a sex offender registration law in 1947, while Washington became the first state to pass community notification legislation in 1990. In 1994, the U.S. federal government first implemented a national sex offender registration law for adult sexual offenders via the Jacob Wetterling Crimes Against Children and Sexually Violent Offender Registration Act. Community notification was subsequently added through the Megan's Law amendment to the Act in 1996. Per these federal laws, all 50 states have implemented registration and notification systems for adult sexual offenders, with some states also applying registration and notification to juveniles who commit sexual offenses. Many states have some kind of registration for juveniles adjudicated delinquent of sex offenses, and the vast majority require registration and public notification for juveniles transferred for trial and convicted as an adult. The implementation of sex offender registration and notification for juveniles varies by state, with some states choosing to add juvenile registration based on adjudication for a specified crime, while others provide for judicial discretion related to whether a juvenile should register and for how long. Finally, in 2006, the U.S. Congress included mandatory registration for juveniles ages 14 and older who are adjudicated delinquent for certain violent sexual offenses in the national sex offender registration and notification standards of the Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act (AWA1).
The expansion in the use of sex offender management strategies traditionally designed for adult sex offenders with juveniles who commit sexual offenses arguably has been made based on assumptions that there is a high rate of juvenile sexual offending, that juveniles who commit sexual offenses are similar to adult sex offenders and that juveniles who commit sexual offenses lack heterogeneity, are difficult to intervene with and are at high risk for recidivism (Chaffin, 2008; Letourneau & Miner, 2005). (For more information on the "Recidivism of Juveniles Who Commit Sexual Offenses," see Chapter 3 in the Juvenile section.)
Unfortunately, the body of research addressing sex offender registration and notification effectiveness with juveniles remains extremely limited today. Definitive conclusions regarding the impact of registration and notification with juveniles who commit sexual offenses are difficult to make at this time, not only because so few studies have been conducted but also because the available research is generally hampered by an inability to isolate the impact of registration and notification from other interventions (e.g., specialized supervision and treatment) and the overall low rate of sexual recidivism attributed to juveniles. (For more information on treatment, see Chapter 5, "Effectiveness of Treatment for Juveniles Who Sexually Offend," in the Juvenile section.) Nevertheless, this chapter reviews these studies and their findings for the purpose of informing policy and practice at the federal, state and local levels. Findings from studies comparing the recidivism rates of juveniles who commit sexual offenses with those of two groups — adult sex offenders and juveniles who commit nonsexual offenses — are also presented to shed light on any comparative differences that exist in the propensity to reoffend.
This chapter does not discuss the theoretical and sociological explanations for registration and notification or place the research within this context. Its focus is on registration and notification for juveniles who commit sexual offenses. (For information about sex offender registration and notification as it relates to adult sex offenders see Chapter 8, "Sex Offender Management Strategies," in the Adult section.)
Summary of Research Findings
As stated above, very few studies examining the impact of sex offender registration and notification on juveniles have been undertaken to date. Only a small number of studies were identified in the literature that examined (either directly or indirectly) the effect of registration and notification on juvenile sex offense rates. One of these studies examined juvenile sex crime arrest rates prior to and following the implementation of sex offender registration and notification, and another two examined the recidivism of juveniles who sexually offend and required to register as compared to groups who were not registered. The final two studies examined the recidivism of juveniles subject to different registration and notification levels. Findings from these studies are presented below.
Studies Examining Registration and Notification With Juveniles Who Sexually Offend
A study by Holmes (2009) examined sex crime arrest rates before and after sex offender registration and notification implementation based on an analysis of annual sex crime arrests recorded in the Uniform Crime Report data for 47 states. Data were analyzed for 1994 through 2009. The study did not find a statistically significant decrease in the rate of sex crime arrests in juvenile registration states and juvenile notification states post-sex offender registration and notification implementation (Holmes, 2009).2
A second study examined recidivism levels pre- and post-sex offender registration and notification implementation focused on juveniles who committed sexual offenses (N = 1,275) in South Carolina between 1990 and 2004. Sex offender registration and notification was implemented in South Carolina in 1995. Observed recidivism rates were based on an average follow-up period of nine years. Registration implementation was not found to be associated with a significant reduction in sexual recidivism. However, nonsexual, nonassault recidivism (defined as a new charge) was significantly greater for those subject to registration and notification,3 suggesting a possible surveillance effect (Letourneau et al., 2009a).
Another study compared the recidivism rates of juveniles subject to registration and notification requirements with those of juveniles not required to register (N = 172). Based on a mean follow-up period of 49.2 months post-release from a secure setting, the researchers found no significant differences between registrants and nonregistrants in sexual recidivism (12.2 percent), as measured by a new charge for a felony sex crime. However, the rate of general recidivism (59.3 percent) was found to be significantly lower for registrants than nonregistrants4 (Caldwell & Dickinson, 2009).
Further, a study examining recidivism for juveniles subject to different levels of registration and notification focused on juveniles in Washington state who were subject to assessment for registration and notification level following release to parole after incarceration from 1995 to 2002 (N = 319). Sexual reconviction rates were examined over a five-year follow-up period. The research found that juveniles identified either as level I or level II (n = 278) offenders had a 9 percent sexual reconviction rate, while those identified as level III offenders had a 12 percent sexual reconviction rate. Level III is the highest registration and notification level in Washington, requiring active community notification, while levels I and II do not require community notification (Barnoski, 2008).
Finally, a study also looked at the differences between juveniles aged 10-19 classified as tier III in the Adam Walsh Act compared to those not so classified (N = 108). There was no significant differences between those who met the registration and notification criteria and those who did not meet this criteria on either sexual (overall, 1.9 percent across both groups) or general (overall, 16.7 percent across both groups) recidivism (Bastastini et al., 2011).
The aforementioned studies have limitations common to all studies that employ official statistics on sexual offending or sexual recidivism, namely, the underreporting of sexual offenses to authorities (see, for example, Bachman, 1998, and Tjaden & Thoennes, 2006) and the low base rate for recidivism.5 In addition, some of the studies examined outcomes pre- and post- sex offender registration and notification implementation; the others examined registration and notification effects on recidivism indirectly. Finally, none of the studies were based on random assignment, although it should be noted that interrupted time series analysis based on a sufficient number of observations can produce highly trustworthy findings.
Juvenile Disposition Studies
The following findings from two juvenile disposition studies shed light on some of the unintended consequences of registration and notification application with juveniles who have sexually offended.
In one study, disposition outcomes for South Carolina juveniles who committed sexual assault or robbery crimes between 1990 and 2004 (N = 18,068) were examined. The study found that juveniles who committed sexual offenses (n = 5,166) were subject to a significant change in prosecutor decision-making following implementation of the sex offender registry in 1995, particularly younger juveniles and those with fewer prior offenses. Letourneau and colleagues (2009b, p. 158) concluded, "For sexual offense charges, there was a 41 percent reduction in the odds of a prosecutor moving forward after registration was implemented than before." Similarly, there was a statistically significant reduction in assault dispositions of 22 percent, but there was not a statistically significant reduction in robbery dispositions over the same time period (Letourneau et al., 2009b).
In a study of dispositions for juveniles who committed sexual offenses in an urban region of Michigan in 2006 (N = 299 petitions filed), Calley (2008) found that a high percentage of serious charges were pled down to a lesser charge and, as a result, a significant number of juveniles who committed sexual offenses were no longer eligible for county-funded sex-offense-specific treatment. In essence, juvenile cases were being pled to nonregistration offenses at the expense of not being eligible for treatment (Calley, 2008).
The limitations of these studies include generalizability given the specific geographic regions of the studies, the limited time frame reviewed in the Michigan study, and the retrospective rather than prospective nature of the studies. Finally, there were no survey data on the actual decision-making process by prosecutors.
Surveys of stakeholders can provide descriptive data about the impact of registration and notification on different populations, including the public, juveniles who commit sexual offenses and their family members, and treatment providers and other professionals who work with juveniles who commit sexual offenses.
Impact on the Public
In a survey of members of the public (n = 168), higher levels of education were found to be correlated with decreased support for the juvenile registry based on not identifying community safety effectiveness or juveniles who committed sexual offenses as having significant understanding of their behavior8 (Stevenson et al., 2013).
Impact on Juveniles Who Commit Sexual Offenses
In a survey of adults (n = 165) aged 21 to 39 who either were never required to register for a juvenile sex crime, formerly registered for a juvenile sex crime or are currently registering for a juvenile sex crime, registration was correlated with "increased severity of depression"9 (Denniston, 2016, p. 1). However, surprisingly, those registrants whose information was made public had decreased severity of depression compared to those registrants whose information was not made public. In addition, other factors such as age at initial registration, years registered, having a juvenile adjudication or adult conviction, having a misdemeanor or felony offense, having a subsequent sexual offense or risk tier registration level were all also unrelated to severity of depression (Denniston, 2016).
Impact on Family Members of Juveniles Who Commit Sexual Offenses
In a focus group of four Michigan family members of juveniles who commit sexual offenses, concerns were identified for the stigma of the registry and the impact on social support and employment (Comartin et al., 2010).
Impact on Treatment Providers and Other Professionals Who Work with Juveniles Who Commit Sexual Offenses
In a survey of 265 treatment providers who work with juveniles who commit sexual offenses, registration and notification was seen as leading to mental health problems, shame, embarrassment, hopelessness, harassment, school problems and housing instability (Harris et al., 2015). In addition, in a survey of juvenile and criminal justice professionals whose agencies work with juveniles who commit sexual offenses (n = 15), the registry was seen as leading to increased legal proceedings and registry work, confusion in terms of registry requirements and a false sense of security, although some participants acknowledged public support for the registry (Henderson, 2015).
Limitations: Survey Data
Limitations of the survey data include small sample sizes and response rates, leading to possible self-selection bias. In addition, many of the survey samples were confined to a specific geographic location and may not be generalizable to other areas of the country. Finally, given these limitations, the survey results identified above should be considered exploratory in nature, and therefore, no validated conclusions can be drawn at this time on the impact of registration and notification.
Comparative Recidivism Rates for Juveniles Who Commit Sexual Offenses
Given the limited research on sex offender registration and notification with juveniles, a brief review of findings concerning the sexual recidivism rates of juveniles who sexually offend in relation to two groups — adult sexual offenders and juveniles who commit nonsexual offenses — is presented below.
Compared With Adult Sex Offenders
The results of three meta-analyses suggest that juveniles who commit sexual offenses have a sexual recidivism rate between 7 and 13 percent based on a follow-up period of approximately five years (Alexander, 1999; Caldwell, 2010; Reitzel & Carbonell, 2006). By comparison, a relatively recent meta-analysis of studies focusing on adult sexual offenders reported average sexual recidivism rates of 14 percent after a five-year follow-up period, 20 percent after a 10-year follow-up period and 24 percent after a 15-year follow-up period (Harris & Hanson, 2004). Hence, there appears to be at least a marginal difference in the propensity to reoffend between juveniles who commit sexual offenses and adult sexual offenders.
Compared With Juveniles Who Commit Nonsexual Offenses
The premise that juveniles who commit sexual offenses are more likely to sexually recidivate than juveniles who commit other types of crimes has been studied by a number of researchers with mixed results. While some studies have found a significant difference in the propensity of the two groups to sexually reoffend, others have not. Of the comparison studies between juveniles who commit sexual offenses and those who commit nonsexual offenses, two studies suggested that the sexual recidivism rate for juveniles who committed sexual offenses was significantly different than for juveniles who commit nonsexual offenses. For example, in a study involving a sample of 150 offenders, Hagan and colleagues (2001) found sexual recidivism rates (defined as reconviction) of 18 percent for juveniles who committed sexual offenses and 10 percent for juveniles who committed nonsexual offenses over an eight-year follow-up period, a statistically significant difference (Hagan et al., 2001).10 Similarly, in a study involving 306 juveniles, Sipe, Jensen and Everitt (1998) found sexual rearrest rates of 9.7 percent for juveniles who commit sexual offenses and 3 percent for juveniles who commit nonsexual offenses over a six-year follow-up period, a difference that again is statistically significant (Sipe, Jensen & Everitt, 1998).11
On the other hand, a number of studies have not found significant sexual recidivism rate differences. For example, in a study of 2,029 juveniles released from secure custody, including 249 who committed sexual offenses and 1,780 who committed nonsexual offenses, Caldwell (2007) reported sexual recidivism rates of 6.8 percent for the juveniles who committed sexual offenses and 5.7 percent for the juveniles who committed nonsexual offenses over a five-year follow-up period, a difference that is not statistically significant (Caldwell, 2007). Similarly, in a study involving 91 juvenile males who committed sexual offenses and 174 juvenile males who did not commit sexual offenses but who were treated in the same program, Caldwell, Ziemke and Vitacco (2008) found no significant difference in the felony sexual recidivism rates observed for the two groups. A felony sexual recidivism rate of 12.1 percent was found for juveniles who committed sexual offenses compared to 11.6 percent for the juveniles who did not commit sexual offense over an average 71.6-month follow-up period. Letourneau, Chapman and Schoenwald (2008) also failed to find a significant difference in recidivism rates in their study involving 1,645 juveniles in treatment who either had or did not have a sexual behavior problem (as defined by the caregiver-reported scoring on the Child Behavioral Checklist Sex Problems scale developed by Achenbach, 1991). The researchers reported a 2 percent sexual recidivism rate (defined as a new charge) for those juveniles with a sexual behavior problem and a 3 percent rate for those who did not have a sexual behavior problem (Letourneau, Chapman & Schoenwald, 2008). Finally, in a birth cohort study involving 3,129 juvenile males and 2,998 juvenile females from Racine, Wisconsin, Zimring, Piquero and Jennings (2007) reported sexual arrest recidivism rates of 8.5 percent for juveniles who committed sexual offenses and 6.2 percent for juveniles who had any police contact, a difference that is not statistically significant. The recidivism rates were based on a four- to 14-year follow-up period after age 18. The researchers concluded that the number of juvenile police contacts was more predictive of adult sexual recidivism than juvenile sexual offenses (Zimring, Piquero & Jennings, 2007).
Very few studies examining sex offender registration and notification with juveniles have been undertaken to date. Only five outcome studies were identified in the literature and none of them produced conclusive findings about the application of registration and notification to juveniles who commit sexual offenses. In addition, exploratory information from survey data suggests potential iatrogenic effects from registration and notification with this population, but the data to date is far from conclusive. Findings from studies comparing the sexual recidivism rates of juveniles who sexually offend, adult sexual offenders and juveniles who commit nonsexual offenses are somewhat mixed. There appears to be at least a marginal difference in the propensity to reoffend between juveniles who commit sexual offenses and adult sexual offenders. However, definitive conclusions about sexual recidivism similarities or differences between juveniles who commit sexual and nonsexual offenses are difficult to make. Two studies found a significantly higher rate of sexual recidivism for the juveniles who commit sexual offenses, while several other studies did not find a significant difference in the sexual recidivism rates for the two groups.
The SOMAPI forum participants identified the need for research using scientifically rigorous methods to assess the impact of registration and notification on juveniles who commit sexual offenses. There is a clear need for research that can isolate the impact of registration and notification from other sex offender management strategies (e.g., supervision and treatment) that are also in place and that employs large enough sample sizes to overcome the low base rate for sexual recidivism. Additional research that examines outcome measures other than sexual recidivism (e.g., supervision compliance; iatrogenic effects on the juvenile, family and community) also is needed. Research also needs to identify whether juveniles are similar to adult sexual offenders prior to using such policies with this population. The goal of intervention with juveniles who commit sexual offenses is to prevent recidivism, decrease risk and increase protective factors that buffer against reoffending. Society clearly benefits from effective and appropriate intervention with this population, but more research is needed to examine whether registration and notification laws may require modification in their use with juveniles who commit sexual offenses if public safety is to be effectively enhanced.
1 The federal government cannot require states to implement the Adam Walsh Act; however, if states fail to "substantially implement" the provisions of the Act, they are subject to a 10-percent penalty of their Edward Byrne Memorial Justice Assistance Grant Program funding.
2 Per author request, permission was received to cite this paper; the paper's author expected a revision to be completed in 2014.
3 p < .05.
4 p < .01.
5 For example, Letourneau et al. (2009a) found the percentage of youth in their sample with new sexual offense charges (7.5 percent) or adjudications (2.5 percent) to below.
6 p < .0001.
7 p < .001.
8 p > .05.
9 p < .01.
10 p < .05.
11 p < .04.
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