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Unpublished Paper
Against Juvenile Sex Offender Registration
ExpressO (2013)
  • Catherine L Carpenter
Against Juvenile Sex Offender Registration Catherine L. Carpenter* Abstract Imagine if you were held accountable the rest of your life for something you did as a child? This is the Child Scarlet Letter in force: kids who commit criminal sexual acts and who pay the price with the burdens and stigma of sex offender registration. And in a game of “how low can you go?,” states have forced children as young as nine and ten years old onto sex offender registries, some with registration requirements that extend the rest of their lives. It is both unremarkable and true that children are different from adults. Indeed, the juvenile justice system is founded on this distinction, and recent Supreme Court decisions have highlighted the differences when banning certain juvenile mandatory sentencing practices as cruel and unusual punishment. Yet, played out against the backdrop of sex offender registration laws, the conversation takes an abrupt turn as children are made to endure harsh registration burdens intended for the most violent adult offenders, and are exposed to the shame of public notification specifically prohibited in juvenile court proceedings. No matter the constitutionality of adult sex offender registration – and on that point, there is debate – this article argues that child sex offender registration violates the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment. Tracking the shift in sex offender registration models from “likely to reoffend” to “conviction-based assessment,” automatic registration of children is an unstable proposition because a child’s criminal sexual act does not necessarily portend future predatory behavior. And with a net cast so wide it ensnares equally the child who rapes and the child who engages in sex with an underage partner, juvenile sex offender registration schemes are not moored to their civil regulatory intent. Compounding the problem is mandatory lifetime registration for child offenders. This paper analogizes this practice to juvenile sentences of life imprisonment without the possibility of parole, which the Supreme Court declared unconstitutional in Miller v. Alabama and Graham v. Florida. This article argues that mandatory lifetime registration applied to children in the same manner as adult offenders is cruel and unusual punishment because it violates fundamental principles that require sentencing practices to distinguish between adult and child offenders. Scrutiny of child sex offender registration laws places front and center the issue of what it means to judge our children. And on that issue, we are failing. The public’s desire to punish children appears fixed despite our understanding that child offenders pose little danger of recidivism, possess diminished culpability, and have the capacity for rehabilitation. In a debate clouded by emotion, it is increasingly clear that juvenile sex offender registration is cruel and unusual punishment. * Professor of Law, SouthwesternLawSchool.
  • juvenile sex offender registration,
  • cruel and unusual punishment
Publication Date
Fall 2013
Citation Information
Catherine L Carpenter. "Against Juvenile Sex Offender Registration" ExpressO (2013)
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