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EXPLANATIONS OF JUVENILES COMMITTING SEX CRIMES

Why do juveniles commit sex crimes? As presented in Chapter 2, many theories have been proposed to explain crimes in general, including sex crimes. Several researchers, however, have proposed specific explanations of why juveniles commit sex crimes, not crimes in general.

Experimentation

A New York Times Magazine news article asked, "How can you distinguish a budding pedophile from a kid with real boundary problems?" (Jones, 2007). This is a complex question to answer, and in attempting to answer it, one researcher noted there are many "in-between" juveniles who are difficult to categorize:

It's not hard to categorize an act in which a 12-year-old grabs a girl's rear end. And, on the other extreme, it's not difficult to classify a 17-year-old who rapes young children. But many juveniles adjudicated (a term used in juvenile court to indicate a determination of delinquency) for sex crimes fall somewhere in between, both in terms of ages and offenses. How, for instance, should we categorize a ... 14-year-old who was sexually aroused and asked a kindergarten-age girl to lick his penis?

(Jones, 2007, n.p.)

Over the past 40 years, perceptions of juvenile sex offenders have changed substantially. In the past, juveniles who acted out sexually often were perceived as merely "experimenting" (Reiss, 1960). In the 1980s, however, this perception changed (Lussier & Blockland, 2014) because of several findings, including (1) juvenile sex offenders accounted for a large percentage of sex crimes; (2) juvenile sex offenders committed up to hundreds of sex crimes during their lifetimes; and (3) clinicians and practitioners expressed concern about them—as adults beginning their sex offending during their adolescence (Barbaree & Cortoni, 1993). It was believed that today's juvenile sex offender is "tomorrow's adult sex offender" (Lussier & Block- land, 2014, p. 153). This belief, however, has been challenged. Many prospective and longitudinal studies show no continuation from juvenile sex crime to adult sex crime.

The belief that juveniles who sexually offend become adults who sexually offend was based on an overreliance on retrospective studies, which take adult sex offenders and examine their pasts. Retrospective studies fail to capture a sample of juveniles who desist from sex crimes after they become adults (Abel et al., 1987). Research that relies on a criminal-career approach, which is prospective, has shown that many juvenile sex offenders do not continue to commit sex crimes in adulthood and that many adult sex offenders did not begin to commit sex crimes during adolescence (Lussier & Blockland, 2014).

It should be noted, however, that those who begin offending when they are young (for crime in general, not just sex crimes) often continue to offend in adulthood (Moffitt, 1993). It has been noted that this is not a perfect association—some early starters do not continue to offend into adulthood (Piquero, Farrington, & Blumstein, 2003). Overall, a large portion of existing studies show that the percentage of juvenile sex offenders who continue to commit sex crimes into adulthood is low—less than 10% (Kemper & Kistner, 2007; Nisbet, Wilson, & Smallbone, 2004; Vandiver, 2006a; Zimring, Jennings, & Piquero, 2009). Some studies that have assessed a sample of juvenile sex offenders for a long period of time show a slightly higher rate of recidivism, between 10% and 15% (Lussier, Van den Berg, Bijleveld, & Hendriks, 2012). Another study, however, yielded a 30% recidivism rate for juvenile sex offenders (Rubinstein, Yeager, Yeager, Goodstein, & Lewis, 1993). Still another study reported that "... being a juvenile sex offender did not significantly increase the likelihood for an individual being an adult sex offender, nor did the frequency of sexual offending" (Zimring et al., 2009, p. 58).

Overall, prospective studies show the most promise in determining the actual offending patterns of juvenile sex offenders, and most of these studies show that a small percentage of juvenile sexual offenders continue to sexually offend in adulthood, while the majority do not continue to commit sex crimes. For example, Vandiver (2006b) reported only 4% of a sample of 300 juvenile sex offenders were arrested for a sex crime after they turned 17 years old. Research, however, has found that those who commit a sex crime during adolescence have high recidivism rates for crime in general.

 
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