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Minors Who Commit Sex Crimes Shouldn't Be Branded for Life as Sex Offenders

The punishment should fit the crime, certainly, but our system shouldn't brand teens 'sexting' each other as child pornographers.
 
 
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Photo Credit: Minnesota Public Radio

 
 
 
 

Two high school football players will be labelled as sex offenders in an Ohio courtroom this week.

Seventeen-year-old Trent Mays and 16-year-old Ma'Lik Richmond of Steubenville, Ohio – both convicted of raping a 16-year-old girl last year – will be classified as sex offenders during their hearing on 14 June. The judge who tried their case in juvenile court will place the teens at one of three sex offender levels. Unlike adult sex offenders, the teenagers' names will not be put on publicly accessible websites. Nevertheless, the teens will still become registered sex offenders.

Rulings like these often restore our faith in the American legal system – not only should we punish those who commit heinous crimes against children, but we should also make their crimes known as a way of protecting others who could unknowingly become their next victim. Then again, it's imperative to remember that – regardless of the crime they committed – these two are still minors themselves.

That's not to say these teenagers shouldn't be punished. They should. Rightly so, their cases were tried in a juvenile courtroom. But now, the two face a transfer from a state juvenile detention centre to a facility that works with sex offenders – setting up a dirty past that will likely follow them.

In 2006, the Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act was signed into law, forcing states to amp up registration systems to track those who commit crimes against children. It was a positive step toward cracking down on criminals who are often considered the worst of the worst.

But let's not forget: children who commit sex crimes almost always do so with or against other children. Human Rights Watch released a report last month that spells out the harm public registration laws – which apply for decades or even a lifetime – can cause for juvenile sex offenders. The classification restricts where kids can go to school, where they can work and even where they can build a life. Offenders are prohibited from living near parks, playgrounds, schools or areas where children gather.

Federal and state registration laws have their place and are needed; but too often, the punishment doesn't fit the offender – or the crime. Yes, many juveniles who have been forced to register as sex offenders were convicted of grave crimes such as rape. But some were convicted of consensual sex with other kids. Others were convicted of public nudity – an offence many children can claim. It's time to look at these laws and establish clear guidelines regarding their application.

In 2011, there were about 747,000 registered sex offenders in the US, according to Human Rights Watch. Depending on the state, that number could include a drunken frat boy who got caught urinating in public where children were present, or two teenagers who can't keep their hands off each other. Most shocking, in some states, kids who are caught "sexting" each other, or sending nude photos via text message, could be considered guilty of distributing child pornography, especially in states that have not addressed sexting in the laws. That means that teenagers who "sext" could potentially be labelled sex offenders.

For example, a 15-year-old Pennsylvania girl was charged with manufacturing and disseminating child pornography in 2004 for posting nude photos of herself on the internet. She was charged as an adult and now faces registration for life as of last year, according to Human Rights Watch.

Should instances like these be legal? Of course not. But let the punishment fit the crime. Holding youthful offenders to the same, or even a similar, standard as adults can cause irreversible harm – ranging from public humiliation to emotional and psychological damage. Secondarily, it often causes severe educational disadvantages since the presence of young sex offenders in a traditional school setting is typically forbidden.

 
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