Published May 31, 2019
With several septuagenarians competing for the presidency, the ghost of the 1990s looms over the 2020 race. Joe Biden has faced criticism for his sponsorship of the 1994 crime bill. President Trump tweeted: “Anyone associated with the 1994 Crime Bill will not have a chance of being elected.”
Here’s some context. Violent crime rates in the United States began a steep climb in the mid-1960s and reached their peak in the early 1990s. Americans were extremely worried. Donald Trump, for example, recommended bringing back New York’s death penalty in response to a much-publicized Central Park attack. Politicians listened. Many states passed tough anti-crime measures, and in 1994, the federal government got into the act. Though Republicans criticized the federal crime bill for gun restrictions and what they called “pork,” the measure passed the House on a voice vote and the Senate by 61–38 with many Republican votes.
Crime has dropped dramatically since. Was that due to the law? Doubtful. Crime also rose and fell in Canada at about the same rate during the same time period (though it started at a much lower baseline). Some possible causes that have been floated: abortion, immigration, cellphones, and community policing.
In any case, there are good reasons to reconsider some aspects of the 1994 act and subsequent revisions, because we’ve had a chance to see the unintended consequences.
One feature of the 1994 law that has had baleful unanticipated effects was the adoption of sex-offender registries. At the time, experts advised that sex offenders never reformed. To protect the community from those found guilty of such offenses after their return to society, registries would require them to identify themselves (sometimes even with signs in their windows). Understandably, penalties were particularly harsh for anyone who harmed a child sexually.
What the law’s authors didn’t anticipate is that children themselves would be caught up in this net. The Juvenile Law Center in Philadelphia has been studying those effects.
The old assumption that sex offenders never change has proved mistaken. The national recidivism rate for all crimes is roughly 40 percent. The rate for adults who commit sex offenses is about 13 percent. For children, the rate is about 7 percent.
Sex-offender registries in many states make no distinction between crimes committed by adults against children and offenses children commit against one another. Children as young as eight years old have been required to register as sex offenders and remain on the registry for life.
Sometimes, children commit serious offenses. But children mature and change. Should a youthful offense or stupid mistake carry a lifetime punishment?
And not all offenses that can land you on a registry are serious. “Isaac E” pleaded guilty to “indecent liberties by forcible compulsion.” He touched a girl’s chest. They were both twelve at the time. But Isaac must post a new picture of himself every year, while the age of his victim is always listed as twelve. This makes it appear to anyone who consults the registry years later that the adult Isaac assaulted a child.
Children who have been labeled sex offenders often struggle to lead normal lives after serving time. Strict rules limit where sex offenders can live or work. Some cannot live with family members who have children, and missing a deadline can result in a felony conviction for failing to register. “Gabriel” had been arrested for sexually touching a playmate at the age of eleven. He did not reoffend, but he lived on the streets after leaving the Texas Youth Center at age 17 when he failed to find an apartment that would accept him. In a Catch-22 faced by many on registries, he was then arrested for failing to register a home address (a felony) and sentenced to a year in prison. Other offenses that can trip up those on registries: changing their Yelp account username, parking in a different place, failing to have mail forwarded to a new address.
A 15-year-old Pennsylvania girl who took nude selfies and posted them online was convicted of manufacturing and disseminating child pornography. She was charged as an adult and will remain on the registry for life.
A 16-year-old who had been on the Louisiana registry for two years told Human Rights Watch, “For sex offenders, our mistake is forever available to the world to see. There is no redemption, no forgiveness. . . . There is never a chance for a fresh start. You are finished. I wish I was executed because my life is basically over.”
We’ll likely never know if the tough-on-crime laws we passed with bipartisan majorities in the 1990s worked or not. But surely some of the injustices — like imposing lifelong pariah status on children — cry out for correction.
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Mona Charen is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.