Forty American states currently require sex offender registration for at least some children adjudicated juvenile delinquent. The practice lacks a good public safety rational and has enormous costs. It also undermines both the registry system and the principles at the heart of the juvenile justice system.
While there is some evidence that sex offender registries themselves are effective in tracking adult pedophiles and other serial sex offenders, there is little to no evidence that it does anything to discourage juvenile sex offenders. A great many juvenile sex offenders do things that either should not be criminal justice issues at all such as having consensual sex with other teenagers or sharing nude "selfies" with near contemporaries. Many laws take into account the age of the victim but not the age of the accused. This is a serious oversight. Among those juvenile sex offenders who commit truly serious acts that do require intervention, some may truly not understand what they are doing while others may simply be misguided. Evidence suggests that many are, themselves, victims of abuse. Unsurprisingly, the recidivism rates for children on sex offender registries are exceptionally low.
The system of juvenile registration has enormous costs. A cost-benefit study produced by the R Street Institute, my organization, concluded that the system had a net negative cost on social welfare of at least $3 billion. Because a large number of child sex offense cases are intra-family, many of the costs end up being borne by the victims who are often subject to registration-associated stigmas.
The practice of registering juveniles also fails to advance the interests of justice. Most importantly it simply clutters the registries. If we are to track and monitor pedophiles and other serious, recidivist sex offenders, it makes sense to focus resources on the worst-of-the-worst. Including children adjudicated delinquent makes it harder to focus the registry on those who need registration the most. The entire practice also undermine the idea that the juvenile justice system is to be therapeutic and take the interests of the accused into account. If a given juvenile offender has done something so serious that he or she should face lifelong consequences, then there's a very good case for trying that person as an adult.
There's a strong case for ending juvenile sex offender registration. And we should do so sooner rather than later.