I recently read an article that used the term “reform remnants” to refer to youth who had not yet had the benefits of juvenile justice reforms sweeping the country. It is a harsh term, intended to serve as a call to action to improve conditions of care for the smaller — but perhaps more vulnerable — population of youth who are detained, despite significant declines in the use of detention nationally and locally. It prompted me to think about the youth for whom we have not yet made enough real progress. Youth who have committed sex offenses are on that list.
In Illinois and many other states, these youth are systematically excluded from fundamental protections of the juvenile justice system. Their juvenile court records are not protected by the same confidentiality laws applied to other offenses (even serious or violent ones). They are often categorically excluded from treatment programs or alternatives to detention or incarceration and they can be subject to lifelong “collateral consequences,” including sex offender registration and restrictions on housing and employment.
In “Five Opportunities for Reforming the Juvenile Justice System,” (December 2014) the MacArthur Foundation notes that we have yet to align our responses to youth who commit sex offenses with best practice and developmental science, particularly when it comes to the use of registries. As a result, our current laws and policies produce stigma, hopelessness, barriers to healthy development and potential legal penalties far beyond anything the juvenile justice system could otherwise impose.
But the tide may be turning. In 2014, the Illinois Juvenile Justice Commission released a detailed look at youth who commit sexual offenses in Illinois and what we know about them. The two-year study — which was designed and conducted in collaboration with Loyola University Chicago’s ChildLaw Center — was legislatively mandated to provide policymakers with current, objective facts and to make recommendations for legislative responses reflecting best practice.
To fulfill that mandate, the study team gathered and analyzed state and federal law, research, data, case files and the perspectives of practitioners. And since the report’s release, the Commission and Loyola have worked together to share widely the report’s key findings, most of which are applicable to other states as well:
- We are not facing an “epidemic” of sexual offending by youth. Arrests of juveniles for sex offenses comprised less than 1 percent of all arrests in Illinois, with the number of arrests declining over the four years of data sampled.
- The majority of youth arrested for sexual offenses are young. Half the youth arrested during this time period were 14 years old or younger. One in eight were 12 years old or younger.
- National research indicates that at least one-third of youth who sexually offend have been victims of sexual abuse themselves. (Past sexual victimization, however, is not a reliable predictor of future offending.)
- Youth detained or incarcerated for sexual offenses are incarcerated far longer than their peers, sometimes for “administrative” reasons, including the lack of available placements, given probation or parole restrictions on where they can live.
- The vast majority of youth sexual offending involves a person known to the youth.
- Most youth who sexually offend never repeat their harmful conduct.
- Treatment works. Evidence-based, community-based, risk-responsive treatment is especially effective.
- Requiring youth to register as sex offenders and restricting where they can live or work, without regard to their risks for reoffending, does not enhance public safety. In fact, these strategies can undermine rehabilitation and the long-term well-being of victims, families, youth and communities.
While the report findings surprised many stakeholders, responses have been encouraging. Front-line practitioners, including child victim advocates, probation officers and service providers, have confirmed that the factual findings largely mirror their experiences. They also confirmed that the justice system, as currently structured, does not always support their work to protect victims, rehabilitate young offenders and enhance public safety. Sometimes, this system harms victims (particularly when they are family members of the offender), families and youth.
The dialogue with stakeholders has also yielded common goals: holding youth appropriately accountable when they cause harm, protecting victims and preventing further victimization, improving the opportunities young people have for healthy, productive lives — even when they make mistakes — and using scarce treatment and public safety resources wisely. There seems to be a growing consensus that we can, and must, do better.
So, what will it take to lift this population of young people out of the “remnants of reform”? To begin, we must return to the roots of juvenile justice system improvement: the research that tells us that youth are different. Children and adolescents make decisions differently than adults, they often struggle to understand the impact of their actions on themselves and others, and, with the right supports, they are highly amenable to positive change and growth. With this knowledge in hand, we must carefully reconsider law and policy that lumps youth in with adults and applies adult punishment and collateral consequences on teenagers.
Research clearly indicates that most youth who commit a sex offense will never do so again. But a small number of youth may pose risks for reoffending. With this in mind, we need to build a justice system that responds to young people as individuals, with unique strengths, risks and needs. We must use research-based assessment tools and strategies to direct scarce resources to the right youth and, in doing so, protect victims and communities and improve the lives of young people who need help.
The time is right to take a closer look at the youth for whom we have not yet made enough progress. We have a strong and growing body of knowledge, research, tools and collaboration to move us forward. We must focus on our common goals to ensure that youth who have committed sexual offenses are no longer “reform remnants.”
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