May 2, 2013
What I uncovered shocked me. The range of crimes that led to mandatory sex offender registration was staggering – from public urination to rape.
Nicole Pittman, fellow

As told by Nicole Pittman, Soros Senior Justice Advocacy Fellow with Human Rights Watch

Brandon and his wife, Marguerite, sat on the couch across from me in their dimly lit one-bedroom apartment in Bryan, Texas. Brandon looked down at his hands, resting in his lap, as he told me his story.

He was 11 years old when he was charged with sexually touching a 7-year-old playmate. She was a family friend and one of a group of children Brandon’s two teenage sisters were watching while their parents were out to dinner. A few days later, the police investigation began.

Despite his age, Brandon was put into the system as a sex offender. Brandon is 26 now, and like nearly all young offenders, he hasn’t committed another sex crime. But he has spent nearly half his life behind bars for failing to adhere to the rigid requirements that come with being labeled a sex offender.

After the incident, Brandon was taken from his home and eventually placed in a Texas juvenile facility. He was released at 17, but he had nowhere to go. As an adjudicated youth sex offender, Brandon couldn’t legally live near a “child safe zone,” like a school or park, or in public housing. This ruled out his parents’ home, which was near a park. He also could no longer legally live with anyone who had children younger than 14, ruling out his older sisters’ homes.

Like many of the people I interviewed for this report, Brandon soon became homeless. Yet he was required by law to register every three months with the Sex Offender Registration online database and give a valid address.

Less than a year after being released, Brandon was back in prison. Since he was homeless and had no fixed address, his address wasn’t considered “suitable.” He served nearly a year in prison. He was arrested twice more for failing to provide an adequate address, spending an additional five years behind bars.

As I sat across from Brandon, I did the math. He had spent much of his life in prison and 16 years away from his family. It was the “failures to register” that crippled him.

His situation is not unique among youth sex offenders. Nearly every one of the 281 youth offenders I interviewed was condemned to a lifetime of stigma because of their presence on the public sex offender registry – despite the fact that they committed their offense while they were children, that youths’ offenses are typically less deviant than adults’, and that children can be rehabilitated. Between 4 percent and 10 percent of youth sex offenders commit another offense, lower than the 13 percent for adult sex offenders.

Youth offenders are classified along with adults to such an extent that there are no federal statistics showing how many youth offenders are listed on the public registry. In Texas alone in 2009, 4,000 youth sex offenders were placed on the public registry.

Advocating for more reasonable treatment of young sex offenders is hardly the career I expected. When I began law school at Tulane University, in New Orleans, I had a different goal – I was studying sports law and wanted to be an agent, possibly working with the US National Football League.

It was the work I did during my required pro bono hours with Project for Older Prisoners, a group that sought parole or pardon for elderly prisoners to ease prison overcrowding, that changed my focus.

I worked in Louisiana’s State Penitentiary at Angola, part of arguably one of the worst prison systems in the United States. My supervisor, Paula, became my inspiration, both because of her passion for the cause and because she would go to bat for people who were basically forgotten in their cells – even if their chances for release were dismal. I also discovered the comfort of helping others.

I became a public defender in New Orleans Juvenile and Family Court, as I was interested in child psychology and how children think differently than adults. The judge I worked with, Ernestine S. Gray, taught me to never give up on a child. Eventually, I gravitated toward the cases no one wanted – child sex offenders. Nearly eight years ago, I began researching the impact of the sex offender registry on child offenders, and created a handbook on how registry laws vary from state to state.

When I received a fellowship from the Soros Foundation to work with Human Rights Watch and extend my research nationwide, what I uncovered shocked me. The range of crimes that led to mandatory sex offender registration was staggering – from public urination to rape. Although some courts tried to protect certain child offenders by not allowing their photos to go online, their information can be made public upon request.

In fact, certain companies, such as HomeFacts and Offendex, pay for a data-dump from these files, putting the photos online. That often leads to these children being harassed and stigmatized. Depression among child offenders was a serious concern. Twenty-three percent of the child offenders I interviewed had attempted suicide.

Most of the child offenders I spoke with didn’t seem to struggle with sexual issues. They struggled with day-to-day life.

Brandon was no exception. His numerous tattoos made him look hardened, but when he talked about his struggles with depression, he seemed young and vulnerable.

Yet his life was improving, something he attributed to Marguerite, whom he married while in prison and who found them a place to live. When he talked about his trouble finding work – employers often won’t hire convicted sex offenders – Marguerite put a comforting arm around him.

But last week when I looked up Brandon in the sex offender registry, his address said prison. I looked further, and found that he had been indicted for theft of property. The document stated that his sentence would be lengthened by 15 years to life because of a prior felony – his failure to register as a sex offender. 

Brandon has certainly made a series of bad choices, and he should be held responsible for them. But that doesn’t diminish the fact that he’s being continuously punished for something that happened when he was 11 – and that never happened again. Not only does this harm Brandon and his family, but it uses precious government resources needed to track people who are much more likely to endanger children.