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Federal laws require states to keep lists of convicted sex offenders. And when you think of these registries you may think of adults, but most states also require registration for juveniles found guilty of certain sex crimes. As Wyoming Public Radio's Miles Bryan reports, recently the practice of registering minors has come under scrutiny in a number of states.
MILES BRYAN, BYLINE: 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 fiancee, who's due with their baby practically any minute. They've even got a name picked out.
FORREST HAMPTON: Raven - R-A-V-E-N.
BRYAN: In most ways, they're normal family, except for one thing. Until last year, Hampton was a registered sex offender.
HAMPTON: I honestly don't believe I was supposed to be registered in the first place, but I wasn't in a position to fight my case.
BRYAN: 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, not a pedophile. But 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.
HAMPTON: With the postcards being sent out within, you know, a mile of my house, I wasn't going to go knock on everybody's door explaining myself. It was the world against me at that point.
BRYAN: 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 while other kids were baring their souls over late night conversations on campus, he stayed silent.
HAMPTON: Honestly, for most of the time I'd always lie 'cause anybody that was the slightest chance of being my friend was automatically going to shun me right off the bat, I could guarantee it.
BRYAN: Hampton's situation is fairly common. That's why, in the last few years, courts and legislatures in states like Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wyoming have started to question the practice of registering juveniles.
BRUCE BURKLAND: So this little cabin is the counseling office for...
BRYAN: Bruce Burkland is the director of Teton Youth and Family Services near Jackson Hole, Wyo. There 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...
BURKLAND: Developmentally their age is - and emotionally their age is much more around 8 or 9.
BRYAN: Juvenile sex offenders re-offend at a much lower rate than adult offenders, according to the Department of Justice. And Burkland says his therapy is designed to help them build healthy relationships with their peers. He says he's not advocating for the registries to go away. Some minors are a real threat.
BURKLAND: The juvenile who's looking for multiple opportunities and just prefers and likes to have contact with younger children would be high-risk to re-offend and should be on the registry.
BRYAN: 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.
NICOLE PITTMAN: We are criminalizing normative child sexual behavior in large fashion.
BRYAN: Pittman says that the practice of registering juveniles developed in the 1990s 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 that the result is that kids are labeled as sex offenders for acting like kids.
PITTMAN: We have kids that are on the registry for streaking at a football game, peeing behind a building in a park, Romeo-and-Juliet-type offenses where you have a 17-year-old dating a 14-year-old. That person goes on the registry.
BRYAN: 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 offender 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.
PITTMAN: So we've had people that we've interviewed that have been killed subsequently by vigilantes. People really fear and think the worst when they see this information.
HAMPTON: Even without the label, this will follow me for the rest of my life.
BRYAN: 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.
HAMPTON: All it takes is walking by that one person that's like, oh, I've seen you before. You were on that postcard. You're that sex offender.
BRYAN: Hampton is glad that he got off the registry before taking on a new identity - that of a father. For NPR News, I'm Miles Bryan in Laramie.
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