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9th Circuit ponders sex offender registration of 10-year-old boy

An Arizona boy who was convicted of at the age of 10 of sexually abusing other boys has appealed his conviction to the 9th Circuit. The U.S. Attorney arguing against the child says the prosecution was “the best thing that could have happened to the kid.”

After all, the boy was federally convicted of aggravated sexual abuse against five boys several years younger than he -- serious offenses. He was sentenced to probation and psychological treatment, so where’s the harm? "What can we do with this child to make sure this doesn't happen again?” the U.S. Attorney asked the appellate court.

One idea might have been not to order him to register as a sex offender, the stigma of which will expose him to ridicule and hamper his chances for educational opportunities or stable housing and employment. Clearly, several other children have been seriously harmed, but are federal prosecution and sex offender registration of a 10-year-old really the best solution we have to offer?

Surely not. In fact, according to a report by the U.S. Department of Justice Office of Justice Programs, children under age 12 who sexually abuse other children typically do so because they themselves have been traumatized. Moreover, the recidivism rate among adolescents who commit sexual misconduct against peers is very low, and children are much more responsive to psychological treatment.

When a young child hurts other children sexually, it is a tragedy and it needs to be addressed for the sake of all those involved. The boy’s public defender couldn’t remember any other case in which a 10-year-old had been federally prosecuted for a sex crime and called it “really overreaching on the part of the government.”

As the U.S. Supreme Court has emphasized in several cases recently, the intention of the juvenile justice system is rehabilitation, not punishment. No one wins when children are incarcerated and blacklisted for life, while an appropriate intervention often gets young people back on track toward positive futures that benefit everyone.

What a young child accused of sexual misconduct needs is help, not prosecution. Even if his sentence were to result in high-quality psychological treatment, any progress he makes toward his own healing will almost certainly be undone by a lifetime of stigma. Child protection, not police, was needed here.

When all you have is a hammer, as they say, everything you see looks like a nail.


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