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"Smart people (like smart lawyers) can come up with very good explanations for mistaken points of view."

- Richard P. Feynman, Physicist

"There is a danger in clarity, the danger of over looking the subtleties of truth."

-Alfred North Whitehead

November 15, 2010

Juvenile Sex Offenders

Juvenile sex offenders pose a challenge to decision-makers in the criminal justice system. To ensure the protection of society, decision-makers want to know whether or not the offending behavior is a youthful indiscretion or the start of a life-long series of predatory sex offenses.

Sexual behavior that would not be criminal if the participants were adults becomes criminal when the participants are juveniles. The behavior is a malum prohibitum because of the age of the participants. Other juvenile sexual behavior may be exploitative, and in addition to being a malum prohibitum, is a malum in se sex offense. Sometimes, the line between these two types of offenses is blurry—especially when age differences between the participants exist.

Rehabilitation of a juvenile sex offender is rightly more central to decisions about consequences to the offender for the criminal behavior than it is in the adult system. Juveniles do dumb things because of their youth. But because they are young, and still developing physically, mentally, and emotionally, they may quickly grow out of the criminal behavior. An adjudication for some juvenile sex offenses may have negative life-long implications, such as a lifetime requirement to register as a sex offender—all working against successful rehabilitation.

A recent study done by a University of Wisconsin-Madison researcher took a look at recidivism rates of juvenile sex offenders.[i] This research was comprised of a literature review and meta-analysis of 63 data sets tracking recidivism of juvenile sex offenders. The results showed that for a mean follow-up period of 59.4 months, the mean sexual recidivism rate was 7.08%. (Less than the 13-15% for adult sex offenders at the five-year mark reported in my last blog entry.) The mean average age of the offenders was 14.8 years.[ii]

Caldwell (2010) further found that the recidivism rate for juvenile sex offenders was about 4 times higher for the period of time after their offense when they remained juveniles, than for the period of time after their offense when they became adults.[iii] Although, a diminishing marginal re-offense rate is typical when studying recidivism, this researcher thought the measured difference was inordinately high. He opined that juvenile sex offenders, like most juvenile delinquents, may stop offending in response to developmental maturity. In effect, they grow out of the behavior as they move through adolescence.[iv]

The result of this research is consistent with studies that have repeatedly shown that juvenile delinquents, in general, re-offend more often in their juvenile years, and then age out of the criminal justice system.[v] (Some have argued that this differential may also be the result of the deterrent effect of the adult system.)[vi]

Caldwell (2010) argues that studies of adult sex offenses may not be applicable to juvenile sex offenders. He writes: “Recent studies have also found that the overwhelming majority of adult sex offenses are committed by individuals that were not known to be juvenile sexual offenders and raised questions as to whether juvenile sex offenders pose a risk of adult sexual recidivism that is significantly different from that of other serious delinquent offenders.”[vii]

Caldwell (2010) concludes that his findings support treating juvenile sex offenders differently than adult offenders. He writes: “Cognitive changes related to brain development, hormonal changes related to the onset of puberty, the role of family and peer relationships, judgment, impulse control, bonds to school and other pro-social groups, and the response to social stressors such as child abuse could all play an important role in repeated adolescent sexual misconduct but may have little impact on persistent adult sexual offending.”[viii]

He states that targeting offenders during their teen years with interventions, when they are the highest risk to re-offend, appears to be the most likely successful intervention to prevent another offense.[ix]

This research supports the proposition that juvenile sex offenders should not necessarily be considered as adult sex-offenders in training, and for the criminal justice system to function properly, it must recognize this difference.



[i] Caldwell, Michael F., 2010, “Study Characteristics and Recidivism Rates in Juneile Sex Offender Recidivism, Int. Jour. Of Offender Therapy and Comparative Criminology, Vol. 54 No. 2, pp. 197-212.

[ii] Ibid p. 202.

[iii] Ibid. p. 204.

[iv] Ibid. p. 205.

[v] Ibid. p. 206.

[vi] See for example, Levitt, Steve D., 1998, “Juvenile Crime and Punishment,”, Journal of Political Economy, vol. 106 No. 6 pp 1156-1185.

[vii] Ibid. p. 207.

[viii] Ibid. p. 207

[ix] Ibid. p 207

The views expressed in this blog are solely the views of the author(s) and do not represent the views of any other public official or organization.

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