Black and white photo of a crying teenager

The List

You know when you read an article about an injustice so appalling that you want to throw your magazine/newspaper/phone/tablet/laptop across the room? That’s how I felt while reading this New Yorker article detailing how the juvenile sex offender registry–though well-intended–has become a mockery of justice. Rather than explain it, I’ll let you read it for yourself:

One morning in 2007, Leah DuBuc, a twenty-two-year-old college student in Kalamazoo, began writing an essay for English class that she hoped would save her life. She knew that people like her had been beaten, bombed, shot at, killed. The essay aired details about her past that she’d long tried to suppress; by posting it on her class’s server, where anyone who Googled her name could find it, she thought she might be able to quiet the whispers, the threats, and possibly make it easier to find a job. Her story, she warned, “is not a nice one, but hopefully it will have a happy ending.”

DuBuc had grown up in Howell, Michigan, a small town of berry and melon farmers. In high school, she had thrived. She had earned straight A’s, written for the school newspaper, led Students Against Driving Drunk (she voted to change the name to Students Against Destructive Decisions, she says, to stress that “there are lots of bad decisions that can get you killed”), and performed in “Grease” and “Once Upon a Mattress,” while working part time as a cashier at Mary’s Fabulous Chicken & Fish. “High school was bliss for me,” DuBuc said recently. “I tried not to dwell on the stuff that wasn’t good.” But, as she was about to start her freshman year at Western Michigan University, she got a call from a close childhood friend, Victoria, who asked, “Did you know you’re on the public sex-offender registry?”

A cartoon depiction of a person trapped between many hands
Photo courtesy of The New Yorker

Her friend, who had just given birth to a baby girl, had logged on to the Michigan Public Sex Offender Registry Web site to search for local predators. She had entered her Zip Code, and there was Leah’s face—her copper bangs, her wide cheeks, her brown eyes staring blankly from the photograph. Her name, weight, and height were listed; so was the address where she’d grown up, playing beneath tall pines and selling five-cent rocks that she’d painted with nail polish. Something DuBuc had done at the age of ten had caught up with her. Victoria knew the story, which DuBuc described as “play-acting sex,” in elementary school, with her younger step-siblings. Online browsers would see only the words on the page: “CRIMINAL SEXUAL CONDUCT.”

A senior in college now, DuBuc was tired of hiding. She wanted everyone to know what it was like to join the many thousands of people across the country who are on the registry—often decades into adulthood—for crimes they committed as children. “After reading my very condensed life story,” she wrote, “I am convinced you will agree that I am a strong, determined young woman, who has risen above the obstacles which have been set in my path.” On an April morning, she published the essay, titled “So, Who is Leah DuBuc Anyway?,” and prayed for relief.

When I visited DuBuc in Howell last summer, I had already spoken to a number of people who had been accused of sex offenses as juveniles and ended up on a public registry. Some, like DuBuc, had been placed on the registry for things they’d done before they reached their teens.

In Charla Roberts’s living room, not far from Paris, Texas, I learned how, at the age of ten, Roberts had pulled down the pants of a male classmate at her public elementary school. She was prosecuted for “indecency with a child,” and added to the state’s online offender database for the next ten years. The terms of her probation barred her from leaving her mother’s house after six in the evening, leaving the county, or living in proximity to “minor children,” which ruled out most apartments. When I spoke to the victim, he was shocked to learn of Roberts’s fate. He described the playground offense as an act of “public humiliation, instead of a sexual act”—a hurtful prank, but hardly a sex crime. Roberts can still be found on a commercial database online, her photo featured below a banner that reads, “PROTECT YOUR CHILD FROM SEX OFFENDERS.”

New technologies in the hands of teens are another route to the registry. In Prince William County, Virginia, two years ago, a seventeen-year-old high-school junior sent a sexual video to his teen-age girlfriend, and found himself charged with manufacturing and distributing child pornography. The county prosecutor obtained a search warrant to photograph “the erect penis of the defendant.” (Pursuit of the photo was abandoned only after there was a public outcry.) In Fayetteville, North Carolina, a sixteen-year-old girl faced multiple felony charges for “sexting” a picture of herself to her boyfriend. According to the county sheriff’s warrant, she was both the adult perpetrator of the crime at hand—“sexual exploitation of a minor”—and its child victim. Her boyfriend faced similar charges.

Read the full article here.

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