Treating Child Sex Offenders Like Adults Doesn't Solve Anything

A surprisingly high percentage of child sexual abuse is actually perpetrated by other children. But the systems in place for prosecuting adult pedophiles may not be appropriate for child offenders.

According to the AP (via Time), 35.6% of people convicted of sexual abuse of minors are themselves minors. For long time, they were treated much like adult sex offenders, who tend to have high recidivism rates and are prosecuted accordingly. Some, including a nine-year-old boy, were placed on sex offender registries, sometimes for life — others were required to disclose sex offenses committed in childhood to potential employers when they became adults. But studies show that child offenders are actually unlikely to reoffend later on — 85 to 95% of them are never arrested for a sex crime again. And kids who do offend may have disorders or developmental differences that make them unaware of appropriate behavior — at one residential juvenile sex-offender unit, 60% of inmates were autistic. Says sociologist David Finkelhor,

There needs to be a highly discriminative response system. It needs to differentiate between the kids we should stigmatize as little as possible, who are probably going to be fine with some kind of education, and others who need a lot of intervention, including maybe incarceration, because they pose a tremendous risk.

The AP notes that there's little political impetus for changing the way the justice system deals with juvenile sex offenders. Says Nicole Pittman of Human Rights Watch, "Most legislators do not believe children should be on the registry — yet it's the kiss of death for most politicians to vote against any sex offender law." And in general, politicians' desire to be seen as tough on crime has led to treating more children like adults. But there's mounting evidence that this approach ignores the real ways child and adult criminals are different — Rachel Aviv's disturbing New Yorker piece on the murder trial of 14-year-old Dakotah Eliason, for instance, notes that juvenile offenders may experience remorse differently than adults, and understand both their crimes and their punishment differently (if they understand at all). Punishing child sex offenders as though they're grownups does a disservice not just to them, but to everyone impacted by their subsequent failure to lead the normal lives they might be able to lead if properly rehabilitated (the AP references an autistic man who had to disclose his childhood sex offense to all potential employers, making him unemployable). Lawmakers need to be mindful of this — policies that look "tough" may simply be wrongheaded.

35% of Child Sex Abuse Caused by Minors [AP, via Time]

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