Debunking Juvenile Sex Offender Myths

The New York Times Magazine today focuses on juvenile sex offenders, asking where is the line that divides a kid between being a sex offender and merely having boundary issues -- and questioning the wisdom of lifetime community notification laws for juveniles convicted of sex offenses.

It's a ten page feature article, but here are some highlights:

Community notification makes people feel protected — who wouldn’t want to know if a sex offender lives next door? But studies have yet to prove that the law does, in fact, improve public safety. Meanwhile, when applied to youths, the laws undercut a central tenet of the juvenile justice system. Since juvenile courts were created more than 100 years ago, youths’ records have, with exceptions in some states, been sealed and kept out of the public’s hands. 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.


On the effect of sex offender registries for juveniles:

In dozens of interviews, therapists, lawyers, teenagers and their parents told me similar stories of juveniles who, after being discovered on a sex-offender registry, have been ostracized by their peers and neighbors, kicked out of extracurricular activities or physically threatened by classmates. Experts worry that these experiences stigmatize adolescents and undermine the goals of rehabilitation. “The whole world knows you did this bad thing,” notes Elizabeth Letourneau, an associate psychology professor at the Medical University of South Carolina and an expert on juveniles with sex offenses. “You could go to treatment for five years; you could be as straight as an arrow; but the message continues to be: You are a bad person. How does that affect your self-image? How does that affect your ability to improve your behaviors?”

On the requirements of the Adam Walsh Act, passed during Alberto Gonzales' tenure:

Under the Adam Walsh Act, a 35-year-old who has a history of repeatedly raping young girls will be eligible for the public registry, and so will a 14-year-old boy adjudicated as a sex offender for touching an 11-year-old girl’s vagina. According to the law, the teenager will remain on the national registry for life. He will have to register with authorities every three months. And if he fails to do so — not an unlikely prospect for some teenagers, especially those without involved parents — he may be imprisoned for more than one year.

On the danger of the Adam Walsh Act:

the Adam Walsh Act and similar legislation may risk ensnaring low-risk teenagers who were never headed toward becoming adult sex offenders. Numerous studies show that recidivism for juveniles who commit sex offenses is about 10 percent. That’s lower than most other juvenile offenses, including property and drug crimes. It’s also a significantly lower recidivism rate than that of adult sex offenders, which ranges from about 25 percent to, for the most serious offenders, 50 percent or higher. (Official recidivism rates are lower than actual rates; some sex offenders commit later offenses that go undetected.) And though the Adam Walsh Act requires many first-time teenage offenders to publicly register for life, if an adolescent hasn’t committed another sex crime within five years of his first offense, research suggests that he is unlikely to do so, notes Mark Chaffin of the University of Oklahoma.

On trying to distinguish a juvenile sex offender:

[B]y definition, adolescence is a time of development and flux; a boy who seems at high risk for repeat offenses at 14 may no longer be so at 16. And a low-risk 14-year-old boy could become higher risk by the time he is 16. Indeed, the manual of one juvenile-assessment test highlights the complications: “No aspect of their development, including their cognitive development, is fixed or stable. In addition, their life circumstances often are very unstable. In a very real sense, we are trying to assess the risk of ‘moving targets.’ ”

On consequences of lifetime registration for juveniles:

[O]ne consequence of community notification is that as these adolescents move into adulthood, they may struggle to stay in the mainstream because they have a hard time finding and holding jobs. Becoming a teacher or a doctor or joining the military may be virtually impossible for those labeled as sex offenders on public registries. Even job prospects at Target, McDonald’s or any business that performs background checks aren’t promising. In interviews, people in their 20s told me that they have been either fired or turned down for jobs at retail stores, fast-food restaurants and social-service organizations after employers discovered they were adjudicated as juveniles for sex offenses.

The article concludes:

[law professor Franklin E. Zimring says]keeping juveniles off public Internet registries isn’t just a civil rights issue. “It’s also about bringing some kind of rationality into law enforcement,” he says, given that including low-risk offenders in these laws adds to police workloads with no proof that it’s actually effective.

In the meantime, if thousands of juveniles do accumulate on state and federal Internet registries, Mark Chaffin argues that at the very least we should be studying the impact on these adolescents. “We’d need to follow these kids for 10 years to look at their different experiences and outcomes,” he said. “Frankly, we could easily find these policies do more harm than good.”

As Elizabeth Letourneau told me recently, “If kids can’t get through school because of community notification, or they can’t get jobs, they are going to be marginalized.” And marginalized people, she noted, commit more crimes.

Prior TalkLeft coverage: Why juvenile sex offender registries are a bad idea; on the Adam Walsh Act and on Megans' Laws.

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    pedofire (5.00 / 2) (#1)
    by Sumner on Sun Jul 22, 2007 at 12:48:54 AM EST
    Edward Kennedy was about the last holdout on the Adam Walsh Act and then even he caved in. Bush signed it with relish. It is not hard to imagine Alberto Gonzales spending the bulk of his waking hours poring over sexually related material, much like Edwin Meese III.

    The war-on-sex doesn't stop there. See here and here.

    Government wants everybody dirty. These fanatics behind this despotism are even contaminating countries around the globe with this religion masquerading as law.

    Early on, APA psychologists represented that early sexual experiences for children, even where involved with adults, showed little or no harm to willing participants later in life. Republicans blew a gasket.

    The APA recanted and fell into junk science in order to buttress up party line. But some psychologists occassionally abide by primum non nocere, at least long enough to break ranks.

    More insight is available in the "Rachel Maddow Campaign Asylum - The GOP: Protecting the kids?" YouTube video.

    We fight them on issues like this over everyone's human rights, or we end up with the government eventually maintaining each individual's complete sexual history and probably dress codes requiring Mormon Magic underwear.

    government's sexual rigors and mortifications (none / 0) (#6)
    by Sumner on Sun Jul 22, 2007 at 02:32:15 PM EST
    Government loves to pretend how much better prople will be after government has had its way with them.

    If you appreciated the Rachel Maddow video on Romney, you'll no doubt want to read this.

    Reading the above kind of reminded me of the story a while back where...

    ...guards shackle youth in spread-eagled fashion after cutting their clothes off (a practice known as "four-pointing"), chain youth inside their cells ("bumpering"), and place children in isolation twenty-three hours a day for extended periods of time. Girls held in the State Training School report that they have been strip-searched by male guards, sprayed with pepper spray while naked, and handcuffed spread-eagled to their beds.

    "What is hell? I maintain that it is the suffering of being unable to love."
        -- Feodor Dostoyevsky

    "Just look at the number of wars that have been pursued in the name of God - both historically and in the present - especially by Judeo-Christianity and Islam. It's a consistent fact: The more sexual suppression, the more war."
        -- Sachiko McLean


    "for unlawful carnal knowledge" (5.00 / 0) (#4)
    by Sumner on Sun Jul 22, 2007 at 12:36:52 PM EST
    This article shows how kids and sex are naturally like two peas in a pod.

    "See, kids really are the same everywhere." -- No. 1 Comment over at DU to the story on Nigerian kids using laptops to surf porn until they were thwarted.

    Just like churches used sex as a powerful weapon to instill guilt, shame and humiliation, in order to more completely dominate their members, so too government now wants to be a church.

    The progress of science in furnishing the government with means of espionage is not likely to stop with wiretapping. Ways may some day be developed by which the government, without removing papers from secret drawers, can reproduce them in court, and by which it will be enabled to expose to a jury the most intimate occurrences of the home....
    -- Justice Louis D. Brandeis, in strong dissent to the majority opinion, Olmstead v US (1928)

    So it was recognized years ago that Government , left to its own devices, would develop a salacious appetite for voyeurism.

    Just as Olmstead imagined extreme situations such as kidnappings where time was of the essence, our laws are regularly passed on the pretext of the most extreme situations and merely serve as proof-of-concept to be applied generally once they gain a foothold.

    The FBI's new program, (CIPAV), of planting trojans on people's computers probably using Microsoft's e-mail, Instant Messaging, or Windows Update to deliver, is said to collect IP addresses, MAC addresses and certain registry information. But watch it grow!

    The FBI also has a history of lying about the implementation of keyloggers onto target's computers. Some versions are most likely to contain that.

    The implementation in the aforementioned case was a juvenile bomb threat hoax, but count on the trend to continue and burgeon as it has now entered proof-of-concept stage. (And by tracking the regular IP addresses a target visits, the FBI will be even better able to choose a location familiar to the target from which to deliver its nefarious payload.)

    There is ample documentation showing that repressed sexuality leads to more-and-more of the sort of morbid fascination with contriving heavy handed laws and bedroom-style spying such as that which our Government aims to engage in these days. That is their fetish. Look at the Attorney General. Look at Mark Foley.

    Society's need for guilt (5.00 / 1) (#5)
    by Bob In Pacifica on Sun Jul 22, 2007 at 12:53:42 PM EST
    All societies have sexual repression are part of its initial training of its young citizenry. Guilt and fear make the little tykes more malleable when they're adults.

    As I've mentioned many times across the internet, people should invest the time in reading Wilhelm Reich's THE MASS PSYCHOLOGY OF FASCISM. Sexual repression is an underpinning of the whole motherhood, home and hearth mythology. The more repressive the laws, the more guilty people feel about their sexual desires (first broached as infants) and the more powerful suppressed sexual desires become. As wild as sex may be for the most liberal bohos in New York City, it's not half as powerful as the lust of a closeted born-again fundamentalist preacher. Or a President who had Jeff Gannon on White House sleepovers. That's powerful, scary sex.

    Reich is to Kinsey (none / 0) (#8)
    by jondee on Mon Jul 23, 2007 at 11:37:03 AM EST
    What Miles Davis is to Herb Albert. Good call, Bob.

    Ugh, I'm too tired (none / 0) (#2)
    by Militarytracy on Sun Jul 22, 2007 at 03:57:46 AM EST
    I will be back tomorrow to go through linkage.  I think that this is a fascinating subject along side that it is unspeakable that we have jailed our own children because we are so afraid of sex that we can't even talk about the difference between personal power, a person's sexuality and being safe and when you aren't even close and damage looms ahead.  There are power exchanges that take place in every single relationship we have with another person and our children must learn how to deal with those and identify those or they risk being utterly naive about sex and sexuality and REAL risk of being greatly harmed by someone more powerful without conscience exists.

    Be suspicious of blanket solutions (none / 0) (#3)
    by biwah on Sun Jul 22, 2007 at 12:03:54 PM EST
    Many facets to the issue of child sexual offenses, leading to some confounding policy decisions.  However, the bottom line, IMO, is that recidivism is low, and at younger ages (below 16 or 17) for less serious offenses, it is extremely low.  

    Wisc. state senator Mark Green is quoted regarding the Walsh Act:

    If we are going to have a sex-offender registry that's a useful tool for authorities and the public, it has to cover a broad enough spectrum of offenders.

    But that's wrong.  The most useful registration system is one that more narrowly targets offenders whose crimes are higher along the axes of offender age and seriousness of offense (based on coercion, penetration, and age of victim).  That IS a useful registration system because searchers know what they are looking at when they see the names and faces on the registry.

    Meanwhile, adjudication, intensive adult-style treatment, and long-term registration are supplanting the social, personal and familial corrective forces that have probably contributed to the historical recidivism rate to begin with.  It's a very delicate policy situation, depending very much on the issue of where to draw the line for registration.  It is natural for people to care deeply about this issue, but unfortunately politics ratchets the system toward excessive punishment.

    The Hatch Act, if drawn back to include only older and more serious offenders, would be a good law that meets a very real public demand.  But it's hard to see that happening.

    Nice to see someone writing about this (none / 0) (#7)
    by txpublicdefender on Mon Jul 23, 2007 at 10:41:01 AM EST
    As someone who represents juveniles accused of sex offenses, I welcome this type of reasoned article.  It is a shame that legislation is not based on real evidence, though, and is instead based on the anecdotal testimony that gets offered at Congressional hearings.

    Aside from bad legislation, I find these cases often suffer greatly from having a prosecutor who is sexually repressed.  

    It was interesting to see the sex-offender therapist lamenting his long-ago testimony about how you "can't cure" a sex offender.  That testimony has reverberated throughout the justice system and the popular culture, such that most Americans, I believe, take it as absolute fact, when it couldn't be further from the truth.  As the article points out, juvenile sex offenders are far less likely to commit another offense than other juvenile offenders.

    Of course, people like Nancy Grace, Mark Klaas, John Walsh, and Wendy Murphy have certainly not helped matters.

    As a parent... (none / 0) (#9)
    by NoWhere2Turn on Mon Aug 06, 2007 at 02:27:58 PM EST
    I can't even begin to tell you of the fear that is pervasive in my home right now. My son (15) came forward about touching a younger girl. I told the girl's parents, and now a Child Protective Services investigation is going on.  I have been told that my 15yo will be dealt with exactly the same way that the "creepy guy four doors down with a lost puppy and candy". I'm not looking forward to a life of registering and harrassment my son might have to live with for the rest of his life.

    Of course, I must add, it's also very scary that I've also been told that everything depends on the case worker and judge... if they have a bad day, it will destroy my son's life.

    What ever happened to paying for a mistake and starting over? Where has the juvenile justice system gone? Why do we punish children as adults?