Adolescent sex offenders Part 3: Legal issues

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

The primary focus of the law as it relates to adolescent sex offenders is how to keep potential future victims safe. This is, of course, appropriate. However, assessing whether an adolescent is likely to commit a second sexual offense is difficult because of adolescents’ rapid social, emotional, and cognitive development. However, research suggests that only about 20-25% of adolescent sex offenders commit a second sex offense. This is a much lower rate than adult sex offenders. Even fewer of these adolescents will grow-up to become rapist or pedophiles – perhaps only 10%.

Nevertheless, the laws that address adolescent sex offenders, both on a state and federal level, are becoming increasingly punitive and stringent. Researchers and experts, however, suggest that a less punitive approach produces the best possible outcomes for adolescent sex offenders. New federal legislation called the Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act will, among other things, mandate that over the next two years all states include adolescent sex offenders 14 years and older in community notification laws. As I alluded to on Wednesday, this means that for the first time in over 100 years, a minor’s records will be accessible to the public. The Times article says this:

The theory is that children are less responsible for their actions, and thus less blameworthy, than adults and more amenable to rehabilitation. But by publishing their photographs and addresses on the Internet, community notification suggests that juveniles with sex offenses are in a separate, distinct category from other adolescents in the juvenile justice system – more fixed in their traits and more dangerous to the public. It suggests, in other words, that they are more like adult sex offenders than they are like kids.

The that adolescent sex offenders are more like adult sex offenders than like children is directly contradicted by what we know about adolescent sex offenders. Their cognitive, emotional, and social development are on trajectories much more similar to other adolescents. Their recidivism rates are much lower. Even the way they commit the offense is quite different. Sex offenses perpetrated by adolescents tend to be committed on an impulse or a whim, while adult sex offenders are much more likely to groom specific children for some time before they commit an offense.

Sex offenders are a highly inflammatory issue. No doubt some politicians believe throwing out the term “Tough on Sex Offenders” in election year commercials will get them votes in the up coming elections. No doubt some politicians believe they are actually doing the best thing by cracking down as hard as they can on all sex offenders, regardless of age. Because, after all, the victim’s experience is the same. But the offender’s experience is not the same across age groups. And pushing everyone into one category is a severe disservice to the adolescents.

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. I think sex offender issues are also blown out of proportion. One can become a sex offender for taking a drunken piss in the alley behind the bar for “public exposure”, or for getting caught skinny dipping with friends. This person who would most likely never molest anyone, is being thrown up there with rapists and the like. How many sex offenders on the lists are actual “sex offenders” and how many were caught with their pants down (or off) at the wrong place at the wrong time?

  2. This, of course, is not something we will ever know, C4bl3Fl4m3. But the sexual hysteria in America is really quite high these days, isn’t it?

  3. Yes, it is. Susie Bright and Greta Christina wrote excellent articles on exactly this topic a little while back. If you’d like, I can find the links for you.

  4. Yes, I would love to read them, thanks!

  5. I’d also like any and all articles on teens and the sex offender registry. My son was 22, chatted with a 15 year old and is now in prison for it. I’m talking consensual chat about sex, not criminal intentions. (I don’t disagree guys AND girls shouldn’t be punished, but the punishment, because of the Adam Walsh Act puts him on the registry as a Tier II for 25 years and he never met the girl or even attempted it, he (nor us, his parents) ever knew that chat was illegal and treated worse than if he’d have slept with a 15 year old, what’s up with that anyway?) Anyway, I’d like the articles mentioned as well. Thank you! (by the way, the girl was also chatting with at least 4 other guys the same way, and never blocked any of them and was usually the one that initiated the conversations) Why aren’t parents held responsible for their teens these days as well as the teens held responsible for their actions? Seems we are teaching young women (I will never call a teen a child) that they can get away with anything because they are not at the age of consent. As you know, since you live in Texas, the legislators have gone NUTS with this mess and even now charge young men who KISS girls that are under age 17. If the laws were in effect when I was an “underage teen”, I’d have put a lot of young men in prison and on the registry. This has to stop! (When I was 16, I only dated guys in their twenties, they had a job, a car, money to date! Guys my age didn’t have any of the above!)

    I am also appalled that people consider teens to be incapable of making a decision. I told plenty of guys “No” when I needed to as a young teen. How dare the legislators and general public think a 13 year old girl doesn’t “get it” and is completely innocent in 100% of the cases. It is ALWAYS the guy that gets the brunt of the laws and it’s always the girl that is a “victim”. I wish you well in teaching the ignorant parents that teens ARE having sex or texting or chatting about it, it doesn’t make these people “victims”. Criminal intent no longer has to be proven and just making an accusation now puts the fellas on the registry. ALL men should be worried about these laws because they are all in danger, not just young men, but any man.

    By the way, I am the parent of my son, now age 25 and still in prison and a daughter, age 21. I have also been a teen in the past and made wise decisions because I felt good about myself but by golly I kissed a lot of young men in my teens and I don’t feel bad about it but the dudes would now be on the registry for it these days! Wow! It’s amazing parents no longer CAN or DO control what happens with their teens but automatically assume the boy is the guilty party and the girl is the victim. (I’m talking non-violent, consensual cases where the parents just get angry and turn the boys in)

    How to deal with it? I’d definitely be teaching my kids not to EVER chat online until they were of age and certainly have blocks on my computer and keep the computer in the same room as the rest of the family gathers in plain view. I’d also realize that teens DO HAVE SEX and not to just blame the young man. I’d talk to the young man and my daughter and never turn them in to the police. That is ridiculous for consensual matters.

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