Providing Juvenile Sex Offender Risk Evaluations
Tennessee, Mississippi, Arkansas, Oklahoma

Effective Treatment for Juveniles Who Sexually Offend

Sex offenders have received considerable attention in recent years from both policymakers and the public. This is due at least in part to the profound impact that sex crimes have on victims and the larger community. While most perpetrators of sex crimes are adults, a significant percentage of sexual offenders are under age 18.

Given the prevalence of sexual offending by juveniles, and the potential links between sexually abusive behavior during adolescence or childhood and sexual offending later in life, therapeutic interventions for juveniles have become a staple of sex offender management practice in jurisdictions across the country. Indeed, the number of treatment programs for juveniles who commit a sexual offense has increased significantly over the past 30 years. Worling and Curwen (2000), for example, reported that only one specialized treatment program for adolescent sexual offenders was operating in the United States in 1975. By 1995, the number of programs serving juveniles had increased to more than 600. In 2008, more than one-half (699) of the approximately 1,300 sex-offender-specific treatment programs operating in the United States provided treatment services to juveniles. While most (494) of the juvenile programs in 2008 provided treatment services to adolescents, about 30 percent (205) provided services to children 11 years old and younger. Overall, adolescents accounted for about 23 percent and children 11 years old and younger accounted for about 3 percent of all clients (adult and juvenile) treated in sex-offender-specific treatment programs in the United States in 2008 (McGrath et al., 2010).

Treatment approaches for juveniles who commit sexual offenses also have changed since the 1970s. For many years, treatment for juveniles was largely based on models used with adult sexual offenders. However, as knowledge about the developmental, motivational and behavioral differences between juvenile and adult sexual offenders has increased, therapeutic interventions for juveniles have become more responsive to the diversity of sexually abusive behaviors and the specific offending-related factors found among adolescents and children. 

“Juveniles who commit sexual offenses are diverse in terms of their offending behaviors and future public safety risk.”

Juveniles who commit sexual offenses are clearly quite diverse in terms of their offending behaviors and future risk to public safety. In fact, they appear to have far more in common with other juvenile delinquents than they do with adult sexual offenders. This is a common theme in the literature, and the diversity found in the offending behavior and risk levels of juveniles who commit sexual offenses, as well as the dissimilarity that exists between juveniles who commit sexual offenses and their adult counterparts, were both acknowledged by the experts at the SOMAPI forum. Juveniles are generally more impulsive and less aware of the consequences of their behavior than adults. And while a few sexually abusive behaviors in youth are compulsive and reflective of a recurrent pattern of social deviance, others may be more isolated and not indicative of a long-term behavior pattern. Therapeutic interventions for juveniles are increasingly taking this diversity into account, along with family, peer, and other social correlates that are related to sexually abusive behavior in youth. Still, it appears that far more change is needed. As Letourneau and Borduin (2008, pp. 290–291) have pointed out:

Although the research literature reviewed earlier strongly indicates that sexually offending youths are influenced by multiple ecological systems, most current treatments focus heavily on presumed psychosocial deficits in the individual youth …. Another problem with the predominant approaches to treatment is the fact that many sexually offending youths desist from future offending (even in the absence of intervention).

While there is strong scientific evidence that therapeutic interventions work for criminal offenders overall, the effectiveness of treatment for sexual offenders–whether juveniles or adults–has been subject to considerable debate. Some people argue that treatment can be at least modestly effective. Others are uncertain or outright skeptical that sex offender treatment works. While inconsistent research findings and measurement shortcomings no doubt have contributed to the ongoing controversy, a body of scientific evidence has emerged in recent years suggesting that therapeutic interventions for juveniles who commit sexual offenses can and do work.

“Many sexually offending youth desist from future offending, even in the absence of intervention.”

This chapter reviews the scientific evidence on the effectiveness of treatment for juveniles who commit sexual offenses. It was developed to support informed policy and program development at the federal, state, and local levels. The chapter summarizes what is scientifically known about the impact of treatment on the recidivism of juveniles who sexually offend. (For more information on “Recidivism of Juveniles Who Commit Sexual Offenses ,”see chapter 3 in the Juvenile section.) It presents key, up-to-date research findings from single studies of treatment effectiveness as well as from research that synthesizes information from multiple treatment effectiveness studies.