December 2, 2009

Can we tell which juveniles will sexually reoffend?

Juvenile recidivism is a hot topic in the sex offender field these days. It would be great if we could figure out which young sex offenders are at high risk to offend again. After all, the federal SORNA law mandates that certain juvenile sex offenders be listed on public registries and report to law enforcement every 90 days for a full quarter-century.

But predicting which adolescents are at risk to sexually reoffend as adults is no easy task. Perhaps the biggest impediment is the low base rate: The large majority of underage males who commit a sex crime will not be charged for another sex crime as an adult. So, any prediction that a juvenile will sexually reoffend is likely to be wrong -- what we in the field call a "false positive."

Although several new instruments have popped up with the express goal of increasing the accuracy of juvenile sex offender risk prediction, none has the established reliability or validity to be ready for prime time, according to a new article in Behavioral Sciences and the Law.
"At this time, research does not support the use of any of the specialized risk assessment instruments for the task of predicting sexual recidivism in adolescents…. Unfortunately, legislatures enacting laws regarding civil detainment and registration of adolescent sexual offenders have not been dissuaded by studies demonstrating an inability to accurately predict which adolescents are most at risk for subsequent sex offenses."
Scientifically proven instruments or not, we will still be called upon to conduct such evaluations. And if we refuse, the article's authors point out, courts will just rely upon flawed data or the recommendations of prosecutors.

With that in mind, Michael Vitacco, associate director of research at the Mendota Mental Health Institute in Wisconsin, and his colleagues provide a set of recommendations for forensic psychologists who conduct risk assessments of juvenile sex offenders. These include:
  • First and foremost, remember the low base rates and the consequently high risk of false positives, with devastatingly dire consequences to young people's futures.
  • Understand adolescent sexual development, including hormonal issues and the brain's structural maturation. Adolescent sexual behavior is fluid, and any risk prediction should be very short-term.
  • Be familiar with the literature on treatment efficacy with youth (such as that conducted by Michael Caldwell, Elizabeth Cauffman, and others). Much more so than adults, even the most serious adolescent offenders are amenable to high quality, empirically validated treatments.
  • Give proper weight to a youth's social context, including peers, family, community, and school factors. These are enormously influential in youth behavior.
The entire issue of Behavioral Sciences & the Law is focused on adolescent sex offending. The abstract of the article, Assessing risk in adolescent sex offenders: Recommendations for clinical practice, by Vitacco, M.J., Caldwell, M., Ryba, N.L., Malesky, A., & Kurus, S.J. (2009), is online. The full article can be requested from the first author.

Readers may also be interested in an appellate ruling of first impression on the retroactivity of the Sex Offender Registration and Notification Act (SORNA) as applied to former juvenile offenders. In the aptly titled case of US v. Juvenile Male, No. 07-30290, the 9th Circuit ruled that the new federal law is unconstitutional as applied to juveniles who committed their crimes before the law was enacted.

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