When Stealing Legos Adds To A Lifetime Of Consequences
Seth (not his real name) describes himself as an outcast as a child. “I was the fat kid with glasses that got picked on ever since first grade,” said Seth, now 40, who grew up in New Jersey, where he still lives. “I was always a socially awkward kid.”
In 1993, when he was 14, Seth said, he sexually experimented with a friend who was 10. The younger boy claimed Seth had threatened to hurt him if he didn’t comply, an allegation Seth denies. The boy told his family, who then confronted Seth.
“I didn’t even know it was against the law,” Seth told The Appeal, who said he at first denied that anything had occurred between himself and the friend because he feared “the stigma of being gay.”
In September 1993, Seth was adjudicated as a delinquent with aggravated sexual assault. He was sentenced to probation and required to receive counseling.
The following year, his situation grew more grave when he was added to New Jersey’s newly established sex offender registry. Under the state’s registry law, known as Megan’s Law, he could be removed from the registry if he remained offense-free for 15 years and could demonstrate that he wasn’t a threat to others.
In 1994, however, Seth was caught shoplifting Legos from a department store, he told The Appeal. And that offense, the local prosecutor has argued, should keep Seth on the registry for the rest of his life.
But a case now before the Superior Court of New Jersey could offer Seth a second chance. The central issue before the court is: If a nonsexual offense occurs within the first 15 years, can the clock restart or is the person forced to stay on the registry permanently?
The court’s decision could impact Seth and the lives of more than 16,000 other registrants—almost 1,000 of whom are children—in New Jersey.
“No matter what my story is, people are going to hear Megan’s Law and automatically assume stuff,” said Seth. “There are certain freedoms that you and other people who are not subject to this take for granted.”
Protecting kids from kids
On Oct. 31, 1994, while Seth was still serving probation, Megan’s Law was signed into law in New Jersey. The rest of the country and the federal government would soon follow suit.
The law was named for 7-year-old Megan Kanka, who was raped and murdered by Jesse Timmendequas in July 1994. Timmendequas lived across the street from Kanka in Hamilton Township, New Jersey, and had been previously convicted of sex crimes.
“If I had been aware of his record, my daughter would be alive,” Megan’s mother, Maureen, told People magazine in 1995. “I would never have allowed her to cross the street.”
Based on the assumption that such knowledge would have prevented the tragedy, the registry was created to alert law enforcement and community members about the presence of people convicted of sex crimes.
“Today America warns: If you dare to prey on our children, the law will follow you wherever you go, state to state, town to town,” President Bill Clinton said when he signed the federal legislation in May 1996. “Today America circles the wagon around our children.”
But statements like that miss the fact that there are sometimes two children involved in cases of abuse—both victims in different ways.
Thirty-eight states, including New Jersey, place children—in some jurisdictions, as young as 8 years old—on sex offender registries, often subjecting them to the same maze of restrictions and requirements as adults. In Iowa, for instance, registrants convicted of crimes against minors are banned from going to a public library without written permission from the library administrator. In Louisiana, registrants, including teens, are required to have “sex offender” written in orange on their driver’s licenses.
Depending on the state, the conduct of youth registrants can range from sending nude photos to rape, according to Nicole Pittman, vice president and director of the Center on Youth Registration Reform. The impact, however, is universally devastating, she said.
“We’re using child abuse to treat child-on-child sexual abuse,” Pittman told The Appeal.
Researchers at Johns Hopkins University surveyed 256 children ages 12 to 17 who had engaged in harmful or illegal sexual conduct. Of the 256, 74 had to register as sex offenders.
The researchers found that registrants were four times more likely to report a suicide attempt in the last 30 days, five times more likely to report being approached by an adult for sex in the last year, and twice as likely to report being the victim of unwanted sexual contact in the previous year.
“We were astonished at the results in terms of the level of harm that we identified,” Elizabeth Letourneau, a professor who led the study, told The Appeal.
Pittman’s research found additional harms. Psychological problems, homelessness, and financial instability are rampant among people who have to register for conduct that occurred when they were 17 and younger, according to Raised on the Registry, a report she wrote for Human Rights Watch.
“If we think about a 13-year-old, a 14-year-old trying to form their identity,” Pittman explained, “they’re on the registry and they’re not even known as a person. They are known as a predator.”
Challenging the rules
Seth’s adolescence was marked by annual visits to register as a sex offender. In 2017, about 23 years after his shoplifting offense, the state’s Office of the Public Defender filed a petition to have him removed from the registry.
As part of the petition, his attorneys included an evaluation from a psychologist who evaluated Seth and found that he poses no danger to offend sexually or otherwise. He attributed Seth’s conduct when he was 14 to “naive and unsophisticated expression and/or expression of his own sexual impulses.” People like Seth, he explained, “present the lowest risk for re-engaging in sexually inappropriate behaviors after being detected, sanctioned, and treated.”
But the Warren County prosecutor’s office opposed the petition for removal because Seth had shoplifted, violating the mandate to remain offense-free for 15 years, according to the prosecutor’s brief.
“[T]he registrant is barred from removal since, subsequent to his sexual offense, he was adjudicated delinquent for a shoplifting offense,” Christine Engiles, an assistant prosecutor, wrote. The prosecutor’s office did not respond to a request for comment from The Appeal.
“[It’s] ridiculous when you think about it,” Seth’s attorney, assistant deputy public defender Stephanie Lutz, told The Appeal, “that the difference between lifetime registration or getting off of it is a shoplifting adjudication.”
Lutz hopes another case, In the Matter of H.D., will clear the way for Seth to be removed from the registry. H.D., now 61, was convicted of child endangerment in 1998. In 2001, he was convicted of failure to register as a sex offender, and sentenced to a year of probation. Since then, he has been offense-free but the Essex County prosecutor’s office maintains that because of the failure-to-register conviction, H.D. should stay on the registry for the rest of his life. The Superior Court heard oral arguments on Oct. 29 and has not yet issued its ruling.
Arguing for the Office of the Public Defender on behalf of H.D. before the Superior Court, deputy public defender Fletcher Duddy told the court that the prosecutor’s position would result in “cruel and irrational” consequences.
The court that is considering Seth’s application for removal is waiting for the decision in H.D. before making its ruling, Lutz said.
An ‘extraordinarily low’ risk
Seth’s and H.D.’s cases rest on a growing body of evidence that registries cause more harm than good. Research has shown that registering children has no public safety benefit in terms of reduced recidivism or preventing first-time offending.
Youth registration incorrectly presumes children’s behavior is deviant, pathological, and compulsive, explained Riya Saha Shah, managing director of Juvenile Law Center.
“There is a feeling among many people that if a child engages in this kind of behavior, then that means that they are just at the beginning of a lifetime of sexual misconduct,” said Shah. “All of that has been proven to be inconsistent with research showing that the risk of reoffense is extraordinarily low.”
More than 97 percent of children who are adjudicated for sexual conduct do not commit another sexual offense. In fact, notes Letourneau, registrants’ conduct is often due to immaturity, ignorance, or lack of parental supervision.
“As a country, we are not very good at telling children as they enter puberty what are the actual rules about sex,” said Letourneau, director of the Moore Center for the Prevention of Child Sexual Abuse at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. “We still assume a 12-year-old intuits that his 9-year-old friend is off limits when it comes to touching penises, and they don’t.”
The peak age among those who commit sexual offenses against children is 14, according to the Department of Justice. To help educate adolescents, Letourneau and her colleagues are developing a school-based program for sixth-graders, “Responsible Behavior with Younger Children,” that teaches them not to engage younger children in sexual behavior.
“Kids don’t get clear messaging about who is okay to choose as a sexual partner,” Letourneau said. “As kids enter sexuality, that’s when they know the very least about the behaviors they’re engaging in.”
Seth sees his own offense as rooted in confusion. “When I [started] puberty, my mother bought me a book, like what’s happening to your body. And in that book it said it’s natural to explore so I took that, well, if this is natural to explore, then there’s nothing really wrong with it,” said Seth. “It’s just a very frustrating thing to think had I had more information as to what was and what wasn’t allowed then I would have made different decisions.”
As a Tier One registered sex offender, he is not required to be on the online registry and so has mostly been able to keep his registration a secret.
“It would completely ruin my life if it ever came out or if I was on the registry where you could search on the internet,” said Seth, who now works as a manager at a restaurant.
He waited several months before telling his girlfriend that he was on the registry, terrified that he would lose her, as he had other women to whom he had disclosed his status.
“I was already living with her before I even had the courage to come to her and say, ‘I have this in my past,’” he said. “‘Is this a deal-breaker or not?’ I was in terror for like 24 to 48 hours while she made her decision.”
At 40, Seth has now lived most of his life on the registry. Removal would mean “peace of mind,” he said. So “that I can just live my life like anyone else.”