Youthful Offenders


"Youths do not commit sex offenses."

Adolescents are responsible for a significant number of rape and child molestation cases each year.

Sexual assaults committed by youth are a growing concern in this country. Currently, it is estimated that adolescents (ages 13 to 17) account for up to one-fifth of all rapes and one-half of all cases of child molestation committed each year (Barbaree, Hudson, and Seto, 1993). In 1995, youth were involved in 15% of all forcible rapes cleared by arrest—approximately 18 adolescents per 100,000 were arrested for forcible rape. In the same year, approximately 16,100 adolescents were arrested for sexual offenses, excluding rape and prostitution (Sickmund, Snyder, Poe-Yamagata, 1997).

The majority of these incidents of sexual abuse involve adolescent male perpetrators. However, prepubescent youths also engage in sexually abusive behaviors.

"Juvenile sex offenders typically are victims of child sexual abuse and grow up to be adult sex offenders."

Multiple factors, not just sexual victimization as a child, are associated with the development of sexually offending behavior in youth.

Recent studies show that rates of physical and sexual abuse vary widely for adolescent sex offenders; 20 to 50% of these youth experienced physical abuse and approximately 40 to 80% experienced sexual abuse (Hunter and Becker, 1998). While many adolescents who commit sexual offenses have histories of being abused, the majority of these youth do not become adult sex offenders (Becker and Murphy, 1998). Research suggests that the age of onset and number of incidents of abuse, the period of time elapsing between the abuse and its first report, perceptions of how the family responded to the disclosure of abuse, and exposure to domestic violence all are relevant to why some sexually abused youths go on to sexually perpetrate while others do not (Hunter and Figueredo, in press).

Substance Abuse and Exposure to Pornography

While there is strong research to support the association between violent crime and alcohol use, the association between sexual offending and substance abuse is not fully established. Estimates of the extent of substance abuse vary widely for the population of youth who sexually offend (Lightfoot and Barbaree, 1993). The influence of pornography on the developing male’s potential for sexual offending is an issue of similar controversy. One recent study found that sexually abusive youth were exposed to pornographic material at younger ages on the average, and to "harder core" pornography, than either status offenders or violent non-sex offending youths (Ford and Linney, 1995). Research in these areas is lacking and clearly, juvenile sexual offending is far more complex than simple exposure to pornography or substance abuse.

Developmental Progression

While sexual aggression may emerge early in the developmental process, there is no evidence to suggest that the majority of sexually abusive youth become adult sex offenders. Recidivism rates for these youth may have been exaggerated by a reliance on retrospective research studies (studies that examine historical data), which can overstate the strength of correlations. Longitudinal studies (studies that examine current data), which tend to be more reliable, suggest that aggressive behavior in youths often does not continue into adulthood, although some portion of those who commit rape may continue to abuse (Elliott, 1994, Loeber and Stouthamer-Loeber, 1998).

Other Characteristics Common to Sexually Abusive Youth

Sexually abusive youth share other common characteristics, including:

high rates of learning disabilities and academic dysfunction (30 to 60 percent) (Awad and Saunders, 1991, Hunter and Goodwin, 1992, Epps, 1991);

the presence of other behavioral health problems, including substance abuse and conduct disorders (up to 80 percent have the same diagnosable psychiatric disorder) (Kavoussi et al, 1988); and observed difficulties with impulse control and judgment (Smith et al, 1987, Epps, 1991, Vizard et al, 1995).

The following table outlines some of the common characteristics found in youth who sexually offend:

Characteristics of Sexually Abusive Youth
Typically adolescents, age 13 to 17.  

Mostly male perpetrators. 

Difficulties with impulse control and judgment. 

Up to 80 percent have a diagnosable psychiatric disorder.

30 to 60 percent exhibit learning disabilities and academic dysfunction. 

20 to 50 percent have histories of physical abuse.  

40 to 80 percent have histories of sexual abuse.

Jessica's Law . . .NoWay