Should Child Offenders Be Punished for Life?

     DENVER (CN) - A girl who committed incest when she was 11 and a boy who tried to hug a girl on a playground when he was 13 sued the governor of Colorado, claiming that children who commit offenses should not have to register as sex offenders for life.
     Plaintiffs A.A., D.M. and V.A. sued Hickenlooper in his official capacity, in Federal Court. They challenge enforcement of the Colorado Sex Offender Registration Act, which they say invades their privacy and does not benefit the community.
     A.A., now 23, "was eleven years old when she allegedly committed aggravated incest," according to the lawsuit. She was arrested 3 years later, in 2003, adjudicated delinquent, and released from supervision in December 2007, a few days before her 18th birthday.
     A.V., now 28, was 13 when a classmate at his elementary school "accused him of 'always trying to hug her.' He was adjudged delinquent for criminal attempt to commit third degree sex assault," according to the complaint. He was sentenced to juvenile hall, served his time, was paroled and discharged from parole.
     D.M., 51, was convicted of second-degree sexual assault in 1999. He was sentenced to 8 years probation and completed it, with sex offense-specific treatment, and his supervision was terminated in 2007.
     All three plaintiffs are minorities. A.A. and D.M. are African-American; A.V. is Latino.
     None of them have committed or have been accused of committing a sex crime since they were discharged from supervision, but all have struggled to keep jobs and housing because they are listed on the Colorado Bureau of Investigation's public database of registered sex offenders.
     They say that requiring youth sex offenders to register for the rest of their lives is cruel and unusual punishment.
     "Registering youth sex offenders, such as A.A. and A.V. is bad public policy, including the fact it overburdens law enforcement with large numbers of people to monitor, undifferentiated by their dangerousness," the complaint states. "With hundreds of new registrants added each year in Colorado, law enforcement is stymied in their attempt to focus on the most dangerous offenders. Sex offender registries treat very different types of offenses and offenders in the same way. Instead of using available tools to assess the dangerousness of particular people who commit sex offenses as children, the Colorado sex offender registration laws paint them all with the same brush, irrespective of the variety of offenses they may have committed and in total denial of their profound differences from adults.
     "Adolescence is a developmental period characterized by identity formation. Labels stick and can last a lifetime. The label of 'sex offender' and 'child molester' has caused profound damage to A.V.'s and A.A.'s development and self esteem. The stigmatization of them has led to their fear or mistrust of others, rejection, and isolation from family and friends. These harms are compounded by the shame that comes with registration and notification, which lacks an endpoint. Subjecting alienated and confused youth sex offenders to long term public humiliation, stigmatization and barriers to education, employment and housing exacerbates the psychological difficulties they already experienced as adolescents.
     "A.V. has children of his own, and A.A. lives with her spouse and stepchild. The effects of registration can touch later generations of children as well as the child sex offenders themselves. The Colorado sex offender registration laws have especially harmful impacts on the children of registrants. A 2009 study found that 75 percent of the children of registrants had lost friendships as a result of a parent's status as a registered sex offender. Additionally, 59 percent reported that other children at school treated them differently when it was discovered that they had a parent on the registry. ... A.V. and A.A.'s children wake up every morning wondering if sex offender signs may be on their front lawns; how many people are going to ride by their house, point and shout obscenities; how many people are going to watch every move their parents make; how many times people are going to call the police to report their parents have done something for an average person would be normal but because the parent is a known 'sex offender,' it is suspicious behavior; how many more birthdays will be with just family because other parents will not let their kids come to the party; how many parties they will not be invited to; and how many field trips they will not attend because it is too hard to listen to the whispers of the other parents."
     Such are the costs of a registry law that doesn't even work, the plaintiffs say.
     "The public policy or safety excuse for maintaining the sex offender registries is that the registries provide a starting point for law enforcement investigating a crime," the complaint states. "However, D.M. has not been contacted one single time in fifteen years pursuant to an investigation of a crime in his neighborhood. No paroled sex offender has committed a sex offense while on parole in the last fifteen years, and upon information and belief, no paroled sex offender has committed a violent crime while on parole in the last fifteen years. Less than 1 percent of felony offenses (excluding failure to register) are committed by registered sex offenders in Colorado.
     "There is zero peer-reviewed empirical, statistical or anecdotal evidence or research that the sex offender registries 'keep children safe' or that the sex offender registries have any demonstrable positive impact upon community safety. Instead, all the sex offender registries accomplish is to provide information to harass, isolate, discriminate and demonize sex offenders who have completed their treatment and pose no demonstrable risk to community safety whatsoever. The sex offender registries encourage vigilante justice and violence toward the people who appear on the registries. In the last fifteen years, there have been more violent crimes committed upon the people who appear on the sex offender registries rather than are committed by the people who appear on the sex offender registries. The sex offender registries negatively impact community safety by creating a class of citizens who have enormous difficulty finding employment and housing as a result of appearing on the registries. Chronically unemployed and homeless persons are more likely to become victims of mental illness or suicide, resort to petty crimes and trespass in order to survive or become victims of violent crime themselves."
     The plaintiffs say the Sex Offender Registration Act violates the Eighth and 14th Amendments.
     "The Colorado Sex Offender Registration Act ... violates the Eighth Amendment proscriptions against cruel and unusual punishment for convicted sex offenders, such as the plaintiffs, who have successfully completed their sentences, were never discharged unsuccessfully from sex offender treatment, and are not on parole, probation or any other type of supervision.
     "The Colorado Sex Offender Registration Act does not protect the public from sexual predators, and therefore, the only result is the arbitrary and capricious punishment of offenders like the plaintiffs. The plaintiffs have a Fourteenth Amendment right to privacy. Disclosure of the registry names in general - and the publishing of the registry on the Internet in particular - are invasions of their Fourteenth Amendment right to personal privacy."
     They ask the court to enjoin enforcement of the law as unconstitutional.
     They are represented by Alison Ruttenberg, of Boulder.