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.


sandihr said...

Yet more evidence that almost everything surrounding "the registry" is not only bogus and destructive, it is evidence that any ethical legislator cannot ignore in helping determine what the next generation of sex offender legislation will look like.

4nSick said...

I'm glad that this topic is reaching the spotlight. I have worked with juvenile "sex offenders" and I often found myself feeling bad for some of these kids. Some of them had very "minor" offenses such as grabbing a female peer's behind / breast at school. Although these kids were not required to register as sex offenders, they were required to undergo treatment in a sex offender program which was 18 months long. I found that this was excessive for some. I think that it actually made these kids feel worse about themselves and negatively affected their self-esteem. I constantly told these kids to not label themselves as the law / society does. These are otherwise good kids who acted about inappropriately due to curiosity, etc. Of course, there were many kids there that had some serious offenses and these are the ones that were in need of some significant intervention.

I love the point that was made about juvenile murderers not having to be on any such registry as sex offenders do. This is obviously a reflection of society's fear and misunderstanding of sex offenders. I think that many people believe that "once a sex offender--always a sex offender". Even among prison inmates, sex offenders are considered lower than dirt--the very bottom of the totem pole in the hierarchy of crime; and they sometimes have to be protected from the general prison population. I'm afraid the stigma of committing sex offenses is probably here to stay. I just hope that the law will begin to use more discretion in requiring juveniles to register as sex offenders.

Karen Franklin, Ph.D. said...


Great points. I would love to see a controlled study looking at the potentially iatrogenic effects of sex offender treatment, especially in populations without clear sexual deviance in the first place. In some cases, the treatment program's obsessive focus on sex offending may very well produce the problems it seeks to treat, especially when combined with the societal stigma and ostracization that registries and other such tools engender.

Anonymous said...

But how do you undo the damage of convincing a suggestable child that he is a monster, since it seems ironic to put the kid away for life when you process the little nipper through the SOTP Tx sausage factory only to confirm his dangerousness as a basis for lifelong committment. But if you do, in fact, produce a monster via Tx, then I suppose there is no alternative. Perhaps one of those amnesia sprays that Batman used to erase these iatrogenic Tx effects?