Reducing Sexual Offending among Juveniles in Maine: A Systems Approach

Article excerpt

In this economy, juvenile justice is being tested and challenged. System accountability, system costs and outcome expectations are being pressed for improvements. In many ways, juvenile justice professionals welcome this scrutiny, creatively seeking new ways to work more effectively. Such is the current situation in Maine, especially regarding the special population of juveniles who commit sex offenses. These offenders face stigma, fear, exclusion, registration requirement and restrictions as a result of their arrest. If programs, people and systems can demonstrably address these broad concerns--shining light on what is possible while providing assertive advocacy for what is attainable--clients, staff, families and society will benefit. The state of Maine has embraced these challenges and for many years has developed an integrated approach based on the best research available. What follows is one state's experience that can, hopefully, provide ideas for others as the collaboration continues.

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Establishing and Addressing the Need

Sex offending by juveniles is a significant and longstanding problem in the U.S. The FBI crime statistics for 2009 reveal that youths under the age of 18 accounted for nearly 19 percent of all forcible rapes and 26 percent of arrests for other sex offenses. Even more concerning, many juvenile sex offenses go undetected. (1) Underscoring the importance of addressing the problem of sex offending by juveniles, research suggests that adults often begin committing sex offenses during adolescence or childhood. (2)

Although a serious concern, juveniles who commit sex offenses differ from their adult counterparts in important ways. (3) For example, research reviews (4) find with youths charged or adjudicated initially for a sex offense, if they are rearrested, it is more likely the result of committing nonsex crimes. Most reports indicate that only between 5 percent and 14 percent of juveniles re-offend with a sex offense. (5) The rates of repeated problem sexual behavior by children who received appropriate treatment are even lower. (6) These statistics demonstrate cause for optimism while underscoring the need for effective interventions to reduce the risk of recidivism since any instance of sex abuse is problematic.

To reduce sex offending, a comprehensive approach is necessary and the Maine Department of Corrections' Division of Juvenile Services (DJS) works diligently to enhance effective services across a continuum of care and contexts. Such an approach includes early intervention to prevent lower-risk youths from becoming more deeply entrenched in the correctional system. DJS promotes and provides best-practice and evidence-based interventions for youths in the community, and also provides effective interventions for committed youths followed by appropriate step-down services upon release from the facilities.

Maine's system approach for juveniles who have committed sex offenses did not develop overnight. For several decades, Maine demonstrated its commitment to preventing sex abuse by developing statewide, collaborative, public-private sector initiatives. For example, DJS worked closely with the Maine Department of Health and Human Services as well as the University of Maine to improve services for youths with problematic and illegal sexual behaviors. Activities have included training by national experts to advance knowledge and practice regarding the assessment and treatment of these youth, implementing evidence-based treatments, and conducting empirical research.

In the mid-1990s, DJS and Maine's Child Welfare Services within the Department of Health and Human Services contracted with Sue Righthand to assess Maine's response to the problem of juveniles' sex offending by completing a literature review (7) and providing recommendations for effective management. Righthand and colleagues conducted a risk and needs survey of Maine youths who had committed sex offenses. …