To: Open Letter to Members of Congress
From: Stacie Rumenap, President, Stop Child Predators
Re: Urging Congress to Amend Title I of the Adam Walsh Act’s Sex Offender Registration & Notification Act of 2006 to Remove Juveniles
As president of Stop Child Predators, I urge Congress to remove juveniles from the Title I of the Adam Walsh Act’s Sex Offender Registration and Notification Act (SORNA). Since the early 1990s, state and federal laws have been enacted as a response to public outrage generated by highly publicized, violent, predatory sex crimes against children by strangers. For the past ten years, I have helped create these very laws. Yet, in the overwhelming majority of child abuse cases, children know and trust their abusers. The reality is, the public assumes anyone registered on a sex offender registry is a danger to them and their families. After all, the intention behind public sex offender registries is to keep communities safe.
Having spent my career working on conservative policies and causes—I held a leadership position with the American Conservative Union (ACU) and am heavily involved with the American Legislative Exchange Council—I have made this argument before hundreds of lawmakers, and have found much success in building bipartisan support to pass mandatory prison sentences against the “worst of the worst.” I will continue to do all I can to protect children nationwide from the harms caused to them by violent, predatory offenders who cannot be rehabilitated.
This means protecting all children, even those wrongfully placed on a sex offender registry. Until the passage of the Sex Offender Registration and Notification Act of 2006 (SORNA), only juveniles prosecuted and convicted as adults were required to register as sex offenders. Under the current federal law, states risk Byrne JAG funding if they do not register certain juveniles.
Hundreds of thousands of individuals currently on our country’s sex offender registry went on as juveniles, as young as 8 and 10 years old—some for serious crimes and others for normative behavior, such as playing doctor, streaking, or teenage romances. Regardless of the offense, though, research shows that registration is not an effective response. Not only does it cost the country $3 billion a year, overly broad registries have no public safety value. Placing children on registries does not prevent future child sexual abuse. This approach is ineffective and overburdens law enforcement with too many people to monitor, leaving communities vulnerable and exhausting valuable law enforcement resources. In these cases, the law is acting against the interest it set out to protect, and needs to be changed. Taxpayer-money would be better spent on upstream solutions, such as prevention and intervention that prevent sexual harm from occurring in the first place.
The registry also drives kids from their homes, prevents them from finding work or housing, and, for a heartbreaking many, ends in suicide. Sex offender registries stigmatize and isolate children, ensuring that their youthful indiscretions follow them into adulthood, limiting their opportunities for healthy growth, and exacerbating the kinds of vulnerabilities that our juvenile justice system tries to protect. When youth are put on registries, their names, photos, and addresses are often made public, leading to vigilante violence, stigmatization, severe psychological harm, homelessness, and unemployment. One in five kids on the registry attempts suicide.
It’s important to underscore that we’re labeling kids for life who, by and large, are not dangerous. The research is clear: Young people who commit sexual harm do not grow into adults who prey on children or hurt other adults. At least 95% of children adjudicated in juvenile court for sex offenses will never cause sexual harm again, and some studies document recidivism rates as low at 1%. That’s in large part because most of them naturally outgrow the behavior that raised concerns. As for the much smaller number of children whose behavior is more serious and harmful, research suggests that more than 85% of these kids are themselves victims of abuse or neglect. They must be held accountable but they also need to heal—and they do respond very well to treatment and other interventions in the community.
Meanwhile, placing kids on registries isn’t just harmful to the registrants. Most child-on-child sexual harm is intrafamilial and, therefore, the practice damages the lives of survivors and families as well. Because the survivor is often a sibling, they too are exposed and may be targeted by vigilante violence. As one survivor spoke out, “A child on the registry is a family on the registry, and also a victim on the registry.”
Stop Child Predators is a national nonprofit organization based in Washington D.C., that brings together policy experts, law enforcement officers, community leaders, and most importantly, victims. Our organization was founded in 2005, just before the SORNA was enacted. Our group was a very strong proponent of the Act’s passage. We testified on Capitol Hill in support of the legislation, and worked with many of the victims of the types of crimes that the Act was attempting to prevent. We even brought some of those families to Capitol Hill to help facilitate the dialogue between federal and state lawmakers to see what portions of the Act we could all agree on, what we could get into law, with the idea being that we wanted very strong, tough penalties on specific adults. In all the meetings that we had, never once did we discuss registering juveniles.
The survivors of child sexual abuse and family members who urged Congress to pass the Adam Walsh Act—our compatriots—viewed registries as a way to protect children from adults. Indeed, the requirement to register juveniles was added at the last minute by a single lawmaker who thought it would expand the safety net for kids. Today, advocates, survivors and lawmakers on both sides of the aisle agree it was a mistake. It’s time, indeed past time, to fix the Adam Walsh Act.
A bill to reauthorize the Adam Walsh Act is pending in Congress. We urge you to eliminate the portion of the law that makes federal funds for criminal justice contingent on registering youth adjudicated in juvenile court for sex offenses. This targeted change to the Adam Walsh Act will realize the original intent of the law regarding sex offender registries. It will also send a strong message to states that sex offender registries focused on dangerous adults are more fair and effective.
Thank you for your consideration. Please don’t hesitate to contact me with any questions.
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