Adolescent sex offenders Part 2: Social and psychological implications

In case you missed the first part in this series, we are discussing the recent NY Times article on adolescent sex offenders. This is the second post in a three-part series.

Adolescent social, emotional, psychological, and cognitive development is quite rapid. Almost every aspect of an adolescent is, for those few years, almost always changing. This complicates matters for adolescent sex offenders particularly because the individual who commit a sex offense may be a very different person even just two years later, and may pose no threat of a repeat offense. Indeed, the recidivism rate for adolescent sex offenders is much lower than for adult sex offenders, and research suggests that only about 10% of adolescent sex offenders will become adult rapists or pedophiles. But the stigma of having committed a sexual offense does not wane as an adolescent changes.

Sexual offense, in some states and soon to be nationally, is the only offense in which a minor’s legal records are not sealed. I will discuss this legal issue in more depth on Friday, but for now it is enough to know that an adolescent sex offender’s peers and their peers’ parents can find out that an adolescent has committed a sex offense by looking through on-line registries of sexual offenders. Additionally, all potential employers for the rest of the individual’s life can find out that they committed a sexual offense as a minor.

In other words: (1) adolescents are ever changing, and are at a relatively low risk of repeat offenses and (2) sex offense records are not sealed. The implication of these two pieces of information are that there are serious hurdles for this population to re-integrate into society to the fullest extent they are capable. School mates and their parents, future employers, and just about anyone else can discover that these adolescents have committed a sex offense in on-line registries. This can severely impede adolescents’ ability to make and keep friends, jobs, or any of the relationships that form communities that support pro-social behavior.

What does all this really mean? Is it appropriate that a sexual offense that a young person commits at age 11 follows them through the rest of their lives? What about a 13-year-old? A 17-year-old? The crux of the problem is that there is not one good answer for those questions. Adolescents can develop too quickly and go in too many directions for blanket statements about how to respond to them, based either on age or offense. This statement applies more strongly to younger adolescents, because they have even more time for dramatic personal changes.

People in our society, children and adults, have the right to be protected from sex offenders. But the other side of that coin is that it is inappropriate to ostracize adolescents because of a sex offense, and regardless of their response to treatment. Indeed, this may increase the likelihood that they will not have the opportunity to become fully functioning adults.

So what we need are not arbitrary, fear-based responses to adolescent sex offenders. Rather, we need professionals who are able to sit with these young people, lead them toward appropriate self-monitoring and boundaries, and support them in building healthy relationships. These professionals need to be able to see the signs of a likely repeat-offender. But they also need to be able to see the signs of unlikely repeat-offenders. I am much more comfortable thinking about these very troubled young people being perceived and treated as unique individuals in unique situations by highly skilled professionals.

What do you think? Should adolescent sex offenders be treated differently than adult sex offenders? As I mentioned in the first post, the victim’s experience is the same. Why should the way we treat the perpetrator be different? I believe it is the nature of the adolescent that demands the difference. But I am interested in hearing other people’s perspectives.

About Karen Rayne

Dr. Karen Rayne has been supporting parents and families since 2007 when she received her PhD in Educational Psychology. A specialist in child wellbeing, Dr. Rayne has spent much of her career supporting parents, teachers, and other adults who care for children and teenagers.


  1. Adolescents should not be treated as adults, period. I agree with you that they should receive intense professional counseling. Unfortunately, this process is so politicized–especially since, as you pointed out, the victim’s experience is the same–and most people have little respect for professional expertise.

  2. I think this question actually points to an issue that I find troublesome in the ‘justice system’ as a whole. I do not think that having arbitrary, fear-based responses to people’s highly inappropriate and hurtful behaviors helps to protect society. The more we throw people in prison, for longer and longer sentences, with less and less chance of parole, the more offensives we are seeing. By all ages, in all aspects of society. I would like to see a movement toward treating all people as unique individuals. Statistics can help us understand trends, people are needed to help us understand individuals. Justice is about individuals – trends can never receive justice and neither can individuals if they are dealt with as a trend rather than a person.

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