Skip to main content

Are We Properly Dealing With Young Sex Offenders?

Our approach to juvenile sex offenders is misguided at best, and harmful at worst.
(Photo: BeckyEtal/Flickr)

(Photo: BeckyEtal/Flickr)

Sex offenses against minors don't always feature deviant adults preying on children; kids themselves can also be the perpetrators.

Young adolescents account for roughly half of all cases of sex offenses against younger children; one out of every eight of young offenders are under the age of 12. But it wasn't until the latter half of the 20th century that researchers began paying attention to juvenile sex offenders, when research revealed that up to one-third of adult offenders began committing sex crimes in their youth. Then, policymakers and doctors alike saw juvenile sex offenders as pedophiles in miniature. Sarah Stillman reports this week in the New Yorker that juvenile sex offenders are still funneled into a system that was designed to manage adults offenders. There is little evidence that neither the treatment programs offered to childhood offenders nor life on the public sex offender registry—a log that was spearheaded by the parents of victims, and, according to Stillman, has spiraled out of control into something that its creators and champions never envisionedactually result in any community benefit like increased public safety.

The United States has long channeled resources into sex offender management; the system springs into action only after harm has already occurred. But the best way to reduce harm is to prevent sexual abuse from occurring in the first place, and there may be simple ways to prevent children in particular from committing sex crimes.

Every state in the U.S. has a registry—searchable databases of offenders' names, photographs, and home addresses—and the majority have laws that restrict where sex offenders can live and or even spend time. These laws are meant to protect the public, but a growing body of research has found little evidence they actually increase public safety.

For adults, these restrictions and the registry can limit offenders' access to jobs, affordable housing, and social relationships—the three most important factors for successfully re-integrating into society after prison. And many treatment programs for offenders, even juvenile offenders, focus on shaming the misbehavior out of offenders. Stillman writes:

When I reviewed half a dozen sex-offender-treatment workbooks, I found that most elicit a thorough sexual history. ("Describe and discuss, in detail, a repeated masturbatory fantasy.") Then come the exercises. One workbook instructs patients to masturbate to an illicit scene, then sniff an "ammonia inhalant" until their "state of sexual arousal is completely removed." Another manual introduces children and teens to the practice of "aversive scenes." Youths must masturbate to a deviant thought, then, at peak arousal, switch to an image of "something that you find disgusting ... e.g. Brussels sprouts." A third requires patients to imagine a "punishment scene," conjuring up unbearable shame as a prophylactic, much as gay youths were once taught, in conversion therapy, to use the fear of familial judgment as a corrective.

These treatment and management policies were well-intentioned strategies for dealing with a certain kind of person, "adults who've actually done dreadful, abhorrent things, and some sort of action is necessary," says Alastair Gee, who wrote about an alternative sex offender management strategy for Pacific Standard in our March/April 2015 issue. But it's not clear the sex offenses committed by kids themselves are similar enough to what we think of as a traditional sex offense to warrant the same treatment and management strategies, according to Gee.

Stillman provides a laundry list of examples of questionable juvenile cases that were prosecuted under current laws: the 10-year-old girl who pulled down a male classmate's pants and was charged with indecency with a child; the teenager in North Carolina who was charged as an adult with sexual exploitation of a minor after sending a naked picture of herself to her 16-year-old boyfriend; the man who was sentenced to 10 years probation for having consensual sex with his teenage girlfriend when he was just 18 years old himself. These are hardly the classic cases of sexual deviancy that might require conversion therapy to prevent future offenses. Some children might not need traditional treatment at all.

The vast majority of juvenile sex offenders don't go on to re-offend, says Elizabeth Letourneau, director of Johns Hopkins' Moore Center for the Prevention of Child Sexual Abuse. "Just being caught seems to be a very potent intervention just in and of itself," Letourneau says. Kids between 12 and 14 are at the highest risk of committing sex offenses against younger children. "Part of that has got to be because they just don't know the rules of the road yet," she says. Juvenile sex offenders tend to be more like kids who engage in other delinquent behavior than they are like predatory adults. If they do re-offend, its much more likely to be a non-sexual offense, which means a general delinquency treatment program may be more effective than one focused on a child's sexual behavior.

Many states also send juvenile sex offenders to residential treatment programs. Letourneau argues these treatment programs are both ineffective and expensive: Anything kids learn in an artificial, residential environment might not stick when they return to the real world. Rather, treatment for juvenile sex offenders should be family focused. "What we know from the treatment literature, and from the broader juvenile delinquency literature, is that family involvement is key," Letourneau says. Flexibility is also important. "There's not a single practice that is going to be necessary for every individual that has been adjudicated for some kind of sex offense," she says. Juvenile sex offenders who received one individualized and family-centered therapy known as Multi-Systemic Therapy were less likely than juveniles who received other forms of treatment to exhibit problems with sexual behaviors and substance abuse, and were less likely to end up in out of home, residential facilities.

The most successful interventions involve family, individualized treatment, and an understanding of child development—including the fact that many children who commit sex crimes are still only beginning to understand how their actions affect others.

Empathy is also a part of a new trend in sex offender management. For his story in Pacific Standad, Gee reported on Circles of Support and Accountability, a group whose focus is re-integrating offenders back into society, rather than legislating them out of it. "In the words of Ian Elliott, a forensic research psychologist who has received funding from the National Institute of Justice to study COSA," Gee wrote, "the aim today is to 'produce pro-social people, as opposed to just well-managed people'—to encourage people to avoid re-offending not because they are afraid of the legal consequences, but because they recognize the harm their actions can cause others and themselves."

These are, of course, all management strategies, meant to prevent sex offenders from committing further harm, but 95 percent of sex offenses are committed by individuals with no prior records. In other words, focusing on preventing second offenses will reduce the number of sex offenses against children by only five percent.

But those first offenses, especially among juvenile offenders, are preventable as well, according to Letourneau. Folding programs on child sexual abuse into school-based anti-bullying campaigns is one way to avoid these kinds of crimes altogether. "We do tell kids, you can't punch your young brother because he's littler," Letourneau says. "We never say and you also can't touch his penis because he's littler; we just assume kids know that."


Since We Last Spoke examines the latest policy and research updates to past Pacific Standard news coverage.