Magazine article Developments in Mental Health Law

Juvenile Sex Offenders and the Virginia Transfer Statute: Let Treatment Fit the Crime

Magazine article Developments in Mental Health Law

Juvenile Sex Offenders and the Virginia Transfer Statute: Let Treatment Fit the Crime

Article excerpt

"Mankind seems to be averse to the science of government." John Adams in a letter to George Wythe, 1776


In response to public perception that violent juvenile crime is on the rise, (1) nearly all state legislatures have broadened the reach of their transfer statutes, (2) thereby making more juveniles eligible to be tried as adults. These "get tough" measures may have an emotional appeal, but they deny children needed treatment and the rehabilitative features of the juvenile justice system, making them more likely to recidivate. (3)

In the case of juvenile sex offenders, this problem is especially acute. Because juvenile sex offenders are more amenable to treatment than their adult counterparts, (4) special consideration should be given to the possibility of treating them rather than transferring them to the adult system. Rehabilitation in the juvenile system may be the best means of protecting communities from these sex crimes.

Although rehabilitation may not be the exclusive focus of the juvenile justice system today, public opinion still supports this goal. (5) Transfer and its potentially dire consequences should be imposed primarily when the danger that a juvenile poses to society outweighs the potential for rehabilitation. Unfortunately, these transfer statutes as they apply to juvenile sex offenders tend not to take this potential for rehabilitation into account.

Portrait of a Juvenile Sex Offender

Because male adolescents are charged with 20% of the sex offenses in this country (6) and half of adult sex offenders say they began offending during their teenage years, (7) the problem of sexually abusive youth is a significant one. The median age of juveniles adjudicated for a sex offense is 14. (8) These offenders generally are male adolescents, but there is a growing number of prepubescent youth and females being identified as juvenile sex offenders. (9) The population of juvenile sexual offenders is quite heterogeneous and its composition reflects the greater racial, religious, and socioeconomic population of the United States. (10) Consequently, efforts to develop a typical profile of a sexually abusive youth have had little success. (11)

However, a number of risk factors have been identified to explain why sex offenses in juveniles occur. The two most prominent factors are prior experiences of abuse and exposure to aggressive role models. (12) A prior history of maltreatment and abuse is a common feature among sexually abusive youth. A history of physical abuse is found in 20-50% of juvenile sex offenders, while 4080% have suffered sexual abuse. (13) Exposure to pornography and substance abuse may also be risk factors, although they are more likely disinhibitors than causal factors. (14)

Other commonly shared traits include high rates of learning disabilities and academic dysfunction (up to 30-60%), the presence of other behavioral health problems such as substance abuse and conduct disorders, difficulties with impulse control and judgment, and a diagnosable psychiatric disorder (as high as 80%). (15) Juvenile sex offenders also tend to lack knowledge about sex and, more specifically, consensual sex, with distorted opinions and attitudes concerning sexuality. (16)

Although juvenile sex offenders resist categorization, some professionals find it helpful to distinguish among them on the basis of various traits. For example, sexually abusive youth, much like sexually abusive adults, can be characterized by the age of their victims: peers and adults as opposed to younger children. Those who offend against peers or adults are more likely to engage in delinquent behavior, to have a conduct disorder and a history of criminal activity, and to use violence in the commission of their sex offenses. (17) Juveniles who offend against children are more likely to target males and family members and to rely on guile and opportunity rather than force. …

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