For Juvenile Sex Offenders, State Registries Create Lifetime Of Problems
Forrest Hampton is about to become a family man and he couldn't be happier. He's 25 and he lives in a suburb of Dallas with his fiancée, who's due to have their baby practically any minute. They've already picked out a name: Raven.
In most ways they are a normal family. Except for one thing. Until last year, Hampton was a registered sex offender.
"I honestly don't believe I was supposed to be registered in the first place," he says, "but I wasn't in the position to fight my case."
That's because Hampton was found guilty at age 13 of having sexual contact with a 9-year-old girl. He says he was a troubled kid, but not a pedophile.
Texas is one of about 40 states that will put children on sex offender registries; half make those registries public. Hampton went through an adolescent sex offender therapy program, and, by the time he was 18, was ready to start fresh. But he says being registered made that impossible.
"With the postcards being sent out to everyone within a mile of my house, I wasn't going to go knock on everyone's door explaining myself," he says. "It was the world against me at that point."
As a registered sex offender Hampton struggled to find a landlord or a boss who would accept him. He went to community college for a while, but when other kids were baring their souls over late night conversations on campus, he stayed silent.
"Honestly most of the time I would lie. Because anyone with the slightest chance of being my friend would shun me right off the bat I could guarantee it," he says.
Hampton's situation is fairly common. That's why, in the last few years, courts and legislatures in states such as Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wyoming, have started to question the practice of registering juveniles.
Bruce Burkland is the director of Teton Youth and Family Services near Jackson Hole, Wyo. Counselors work with kids who were victims of sex crimes as well as juvenile sex offenders. Burkland says a lot of those offenders are technically in their mid-teens, but "developmentally and emotionally their age is much more around eight or nine."
Juvenile sex offenders also re-offend at a much lower rate than adult offenders, according to the Justice Department. Burkland says his therapy is designed to help them build healthy relationships with their peers. But he's not advocating for the registries to go away: some minors are a real threat.
"The juvenile who is looking for multiple opportunities and just prefers and likes to have contact with younger children would be a high risk to re-offend, and should be on the registry," he says.
Instead Burkland says prosecutors and judges should have more discretion to figure out who needs to be registered and who doesn't. One of the few people working to change this practice is Nicole Pittman, a director at the advocacy group Impact Justice.
"We are criminalizing normative child sexual behavior in large fashion," she says.
Pittman adds that the practice of registering juveniles developed in the '90s, when a series of federal and state laws establishing registries ran head-on into the child super predator scare. In 2006, a federal law started to hold back funding to states that didn't register kids for certain sex crimes. Pittman says the result is that kids are labelled as sex offenders for acting like kids.
"We have kids that are on the registry for streaking at a football game, peeing at a park," she says, "Romeo-and-Juliet-type offenses where you have a 17-year-old dating a 14-year-old. That person goes on the registry."
Pittman has interviewed hundreds of kids on sex offender registries, and she says at least 20 percent of them had attempted suicide. And many states require juvenile offenders to regularly update websites with recent pictures. That means a sex offender's profile could show a grown man even if he committed the crime as a young boy.
"So we have had people we have interviewed killed subsequently by vigilantes," Pittman says. "People really fear and think the worst when they see this information."
Forrest Hampton, who spent years on the sex offender registry, is one of the lucky ones: with the help of a lawyer he was able to get himself removed from the list last year. Still he says it doesn't feel over.
"Even without the label this will follow me for the rest of my life," he says. "All it takes is walking by that one person being like, 'oh I've seen you before, you were on that postcard. You are that sex offender.'"
Hampton is glad that he got off the registry before taking on a new identity: that of a father.
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