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Report: Registry does more harm than good for teen sex offenders

By Emanuella Grinberg, CNN
updated 6:58 PM EDT, Wed May 1, 2013
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STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Human Rights Watch report says adolescents should be exempt from sex offender registry
  • Report: Youth offenders often unable to attend school, live with family, hindering rehabilitation
  • Report cites lack of evidence showing that juvenile registration makes communities safer
  • Juvenile registration is reserved for "worst of worst," registry supporter says

(CNN) -- Joshua Gravens can't do a lot of the normal things parents do, like drop his son off at school, attend parent-teacher conferences, or take his daughter to the park, a library or anywhere else children gather.

For the offense of inappropriately touching his 8-year-old sister when he was 12, Gravens, 26, has spent almost half his life as a registered sex offender. The designation subjects him to residency and zoning restrictions that dictate where he can live and spend time. It has also made him the target of harassment, death threats and hampered his ability to find a job or keep a home, he said.

As he sees it, his wife and four children are still paying the price for what he did as a child.

"The biggest effect is obviously not being able to provide stable housing and a stable environment," said Gravens, who lives in Dallas. "I have missed two first days of school, experiences which can never be re-lived."

Related: Mothers share burden, stigma of sex offender status

The collateral effects of life on the registry are the subject of a new Human Rights Watch report challenging the view that registration and related restrictions are appropriate measures for dealing with children who commit sex offenses. "Raised on the Registry: The Irreparable Harm of Placing Children on Sex Offender Registries in the U.S.," recommends adolescents be exempt from registration and community notification in the absence of empirical data showing that doing so makes communities safer.

Gravens said he does not want to minimize the severity of his actions, for which he spent 3½ years as a teen in the custody of the Texas Youth Commission for one count of aggravated sexual assault, followed by 10 years of parole. But it seems like the older he gets, the consequences become harsher.

"I admit that I did something wrong. I didn't understand the consequences and while I regret every day what I did, I can't go back. I can only go forward," he said.

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The U.S. Supreme Court held in a 2003 ruling that sex offender registration is a public safety tool not intended to punish offenders. But the report suggests that restrictions associated with life on the registry do more harm than good and amount to continued punishment with little evidence to suggest the public is any safer.

"Good public policy should deliver measurable protection to the community and measurable benefit to victims. There is little reason to believe that registering people who commit sexual offenses as children delivers either," Soros Senior Justice Advocacy Fellow Nicole Pittman said in the report.

Related: No longer a registered sex offender but the stigma remains

Juvenile registration has long been a thorny issue even among supporters of the registry and the rules have evolved over time.

The federal Adam Walsh Act, which was passed in 2006, requires registration for juveniles 14 and older in cases of serious sexual assault involving force or threat of violence. Sixteen states have formally adopted the Adam Walsh Act's Sex Offender Registration and Notification Act, a comprehensive set of minimum standards for sex offender registration and notification in the United States. The other 34 states have their own laws, creating a patchwork of guidelines and procedures governing sex offender management nationwide.

The lack of uniformity is part of the problem, victims rights advocate Linda Walker said. Her daughter Dru Sjodin was kidnapped from a North Dakota mall parking lot in 2003 and killed by someone who had recently been released from prison after serving 23 years for attempted kidnapping and assault.

Sjodin's death led her mother to push for Dru's Law, which created the first national public sex offender registry. She believes the registry should be reserved for the most serious offenses, even in the cases of juveniles.

"The registry is intended for the worst of the worst. We're talking about violent offenders, not teens who were sexting or got involved in a sexual relationship," said Walker, a member of the Surviving Parents Coalition.

In cases involving siblings, she said it's important to weigh the lasting harm of the victim against the desire to "make excuses for offenders" and give them second chances.

"The scars are very deep for those victims," she said.

The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children has also acknowledged that weighing the rights of offenders and the need for public safety is a tough balancing act.

It's important for juveniles to be brought to the attention of authorities to prevent them from reoffending and to ensure they get the services they need, said Carolyn Atwell-Davis, vice-president of policy and governmental affairs.

"The goal of the juvenile justice system is rehabilitation," she said. "In addition to those goals is the need to protect other children who may be victimized by juvenile offenders who have already been found to commit offenses against children."

But the Human Rights Watch report says children who commit sex offenses should be treated in a manner that reflects their age and capacity for rehabilitation, consistent with a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that barred juveniles from being eligible for the death penalty, in part for similar reasons.

"Protecting the community and limiting unnecessary harm to youth sex offenders are not mutually incompatible goals. Instead, they can enhance and reinforce each other," the report says. "Society's goal should be returning them to the community, not ostracizing them to the point that they and their families are banished from any semblance of a normal life."

Public mug shots: A constant reminder

Based on interviews with 281 adult and teen sex offenders whose median age of offense was 15, the report examines the long-term effects of subjecting adolescents to restrictions originally intended for adults convicted of serious sex offenses.

What began as a list of "usual suspects" for law enforcement expanded to include juveniles in the late 1980s and early 1990s under the premise that teens who committed sex offenses were "destined to become sexual predators," said psychologist Mark Chaffin, professor of pediatrics at the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center, who specializes in sexual behavior in youth.

Since then, a number of studies have found that youth sex offenders are less likely to reoffend than adult sex offenders, who also have extremely low recidivism rates when compared to people convicted of robbery, burglary, larceny, murder and other non-sex offenses.

"There's a number of widely held but erroneous notions about this population that have arguably driven public policy over the years," Chaffin said. "There was this sense of inevitability that (juvenile sex offenders were) an unusually high-risk population.

"Those of us doing the research know this is not accurate."

The utility of the registry is becoming increasingly questionable because statistics show that most sex offenses are committed by relatives or people known to victims. Plus, research has shown that adolescents commit sex offenses for different reasons than adults, said Elizabeth Letourneau with the Bloomberg School of Public Health's Department of Mental Health, who has written several reports on juvenile sexual offenders.

Adolescence can be a volatile stage in which teens are sexually curious, prone to risk-taking and susceptible to peer influence, which can lead to impulsive and inappropriate behavior, she said. The fact that teens learn the consequences of harmful behavior as they age is part of why recidivism rates are low among youth offenders, including those who have committed sex crimes, especially as more time passes since the offense, she said.

"A lot of youth who we see engage in awful crimes mature out of those behaviors thanks to cognitive development," she said.

Also, contrary to common public perceptions, other studies cited in the report suggest that putting youth offenders on registries does not advance community safety, because it overburdens law enforcement with large numbers of people to monitor, undifferentiated by their dangerousness, and fails to target resources where they are needed.

The report reveals insight into offenders' struggles to become productive members of society while bearing the sex offender label. At a point in their lives when stability and family support is crucial to their rehabilitation, some youth offenders said they could not attend school or live with their families because their victims were siblings or relatives. As Gravens and others can attest, the stigma remains and even worsens into adulthood.

As soon as Gravens was released on parole in 2003 as a registered sex offender, it was clear his life wouldn't be the same. He returned to the home of his family, also the home of his sister -- his victim -- which meant a lot of stipulations.

His parents had to lock him in his room each night and place locks on his windows that would set off an alarm if he tried to open them during the night. If he had to go to the bathroom he would have to bang on the door until someone let him out.

The family's struggle to lead a normal life took a toll on his sister, who felt she deserved some of the blame for the upheaval, he said.

He was allowed to go to high school, where no one knew about his status until two weeks before prom, when a list of sex offenders in his ZIP code went out to neighbors. Soon, everyone knew and almost no one would talk to him, he said. College brought a similar experience: He was doing well until a local radio station broadcast his name and address in a recurring segment alerting the public to sex offenders in the area.

He dropped out of college and began navigating a winding path of jobs and homes that took constant, unexpected turns with each new dictate about where he could live. A bright spot arose when he met his wife through church. When he told her his story, she responded with a kiss. They married a few months later.

They tried to start fresh by opening their own restaurant in 2009 in Wichita Falls, Texas, about two hours from his home in Abilene. A few months later, police came by his restaurant and informed him he was not allowed to spend more than 40 hours in another jurisdiction without notifying law enforcement. He was charged with felony failure to register and sentenced to lifetime parole, according to court records. He lost his restaurant in the process.

There have been other ups and downs, but Gravens doesn't want to focus on the past. Last year he found a sex offender support group, Texas Voices, and began reassembling his life. His family moved to Dallas last year, where he found a job in a coffee shop and a place to live that, so far, has been OK with his status.

He decided to go public with his story to put a face on an issue, using his first and last name and offering to provide a family picture to accompany this story.

"I think there is no other way to illustrate that it affects everyone without showing everyone."

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