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.