January 7, 2010

New findings on juvenile sex offending

Sexually Violent Predator laws have so colored our perceptions that we often ignore a more typical type of sex offender -- the kid next-door. Indeed, of known sex offenders against children, more than a third are other juveniles, according to a new study commissioned by the Justice Department.

Most of these young offenders are not pedophiles or sexual deviants. Rather, they are sexual experimenters, date rapists, and boys who commit sexual assaults as part of a group. Risk of sexual acting out increases sharply as boys enter puberty, and plateaus at age 14, according to the study. The overwhelming majority of youths apprehended for sexual misconduct -- an estimated 85-95 percent -- have no further arrests for sex offenses.

This suggests that new federal rules placing juveniles on public sex offender registries are counterproductive, as the broad majority of youthful sex offenders will mature out of offending and should not be stigmatized for life. Rather, says study co-author David Finkelhor, director of the Crimes Against Children Research Center, early sex education is a key to preventing youthful sexual misconduct.

Even as U.S. states get set to implement the registration and reporting requirements of the Adam Walsh Protection and Safety Act this year, under penalty of losing grants if they do not comply, a subcommittee of the House Judiciary Committee is receiving testimony about problems with the registry.

"There are some very compelling cases that ... don't rise to the threshold of a predator and shouldn't be on the register," Republican Representative Tonya Schuitmaker of Michigan, a member of the committee, told the Michigan Herald-Palladium. "Unfortunately, they get lumped in with the predators."

The newspaper cited as an example the case of a 17-year-old boy who perfectly illustrates the juvenile study findings:

Since committing his offenses between the ages of 12-14, he has not had any further problems. He successfully completed probation and 200 hours of public service work and he excels in school, where he plays several sports. Yet, when he turns 18 his name will be placed on a registry that will stigmatize him until his 40s.

Gloria Gillespie, a sex offender therapist, told the newspaper that the boy's offenses were exploratory, and he is not a predator at risk of committing new offenses.

"Juvenile murderers get off at 21 and they're not on any list," she said. "What's the purpose of this?"

The juvenile study is available here; USA Today coverage is here. An excellent Herald-Palladium (Michigan) article on sex offender registries is here. Graphics credit: Adreson (Creative Commons license)

ON A RELATED NOTE: For a judicial analysis of the punitive and stigmatizing impact of the federal reporting law (SORNA), see the Maine Supreme Court opinion in Maine v. Letalien. Eric S. Letalien was 19 years old when he was convicted of sexually assaulting a 13-year-old girl. He was sentenced to prison and placed on a public registry for 15 years. Later, the law was amended, requiring him to register for life. He appealed, citing the negative impact on his ability to maintain employment and fulfill his roles as a husband and a father. In last month's decision, Maine's Supreme Court overturned the lifetime registration requirement in cases like Letalien's as unconstitutional on ex post facto grounds.