David S. Prescott, LICSW
Appeared in The ATSA Forum Newsletter, Summer 2008
Lawmakers are enacting ever stricter measures to manage sexual offenders
(e.g., residency restrictions). Unfortunately, almost none of these
policies have any empirical basis; research has found them largely
ineffective (e.g., Levenson, 2007). Although supporters promote them
in the name of public safety, the retributive basis of these policies
holds little hope for the health or restoration of our communities
and survivors of sexual abuse. Extending policies designed for adults
to children and adolescents is potentially too harmful to be acceptable.
Current policies run the risk of aggravating the very factors that
contribute to re-offense. For example, residency restrictions that
prevent juveniles from living in their own homes or attending their
own schools, make it difficult for youth to succeed in developing or
maintaining the community supports that contribute to safety. We cannot
expect them to develop the psychological health that will prevent abuse.
Likewise, a family having to move because of the same policies is a
recipe for instability.
Professionals working to reduce the harm of sexual abuse must therefore
ask difficult questions about their role in this environment. When
laws become increasingly retributive, will we allow ourselves to become
extensions of this retribution, or do we redouble our efforts to serve
as agents of change and to educate others? Keeping in mind the findings
of some recent studies is essential when engaging in this work. The
following review of them may serve as a useful guide.
People are understandably horrified to read about sexual crimes committed
by young people. Often public response has demanded stiffer sentencing
and harsh responses to stop abusive behavior. However, decades of research
suggest that punishment-only approaches have no effect on recidivism.
To reduce their risk to reoffend, young people who have sexually abused
need accountability for their behavior, opportunities to change, and
venues where they can demonstrate change.
Part of the problem is that some professionals still believe that
punishment is the best response to a youth who has sexually abused
(e.g., Juszkiewicz, 2006; Snyder, Sickmund, & Poe-Yamagata, 2000).
Given the developmental and contextual needs of young people (Ryan & Lane,
1997), we must recognize that punitive approaches do not stop the abuse
and are potentially harmful to the long-term needs of our communities.
In fact, a recent study by Michael Caldwell (2007) found that after
five years of follow-up, 6.8% of 249 youthful sexual abusers recidivated,
compared to 5.7% of 1,780 non-sexual offending juvenile delinquents
(a statistically non-significant difference). In fact, quite the reverse
may be true. Punitive measures can actually increase the risk of recidivism.
One Study That Stands Out
Paula Smith, Claire Goggin, and Paul Gendreau (2002) examined 117
studies from 1958 to 2002 involving 442,471 criminal offenders. This
study expanded on previous analyses by examining the effects of sanctions
on over 50,000 juveniles, as well as females and minorities. They studied
the impact of various punitive approaches on recidivism. The punitive
- length of incarceration
- institutional placement
- receiving an intermediate sanction (such as “scared straight”)
The study found that the use of punitive sanctions did not decrease
recidivism under any of these conditions. There were some initial findings
that even showed a slight increase in recidivism corresponding to increased
length of incarceration.
The authors concluded that, “Prisons and intermediate sanctions
should not be used with the expectation of reducing criminal behavior.”
Surprisingly, this study (and previous analyses by the authors) has
gained little attention in either the media or our field.
The findings are clear: among juveniles more punishment does not mean
a decrease in recidivism. Professionals will want to consider this
research when making recommendations that affect sentencing or interventions.
Treatment professionals, especially, will also want to ensure they
use these findings to differentiate between measures that are punitive-only
and interventions that enable a youth to develop their own reasons
to live a life free of abuse.
Given the reality that many young people who sexually abuse come from
backgrounds in which abuse is commonplace (Schwartz, Cavanaugh, Prentky, & Pimental,
2006), interventions must involve adults who will teach and model accountability
and offer a positive alternative for living a healthy life.
What Can Professionals Do?
Fortunately, professionals have good reason to advocate for treatment
as a means of preventing further abuse by young people. A recent study
by Lorraine Reitzel and Joyce Carbonell (2006) is just one example
of research demonstrating the positive impact of treatment with youth
who have sexually abused. The right treatment applied to the appropriate
client under the right conditions can reduce recidivism among adolescents
who have sexually abused. However, professionals should remain vigilant
to what factors help create meaningful client change. Reitzel and Carbonell
(2006) reviewed nine studies of juveniles who have sexually abused.
According to their abstract:
Published and unpublished data from nine studies on juvenile sexual
offender treatment effectiveness were summarized by meta-analysis (N=2986,
2604 known male). Recidivism rates for crimes with or without treatment
- Sexual 12.53%
- Non-sexual violent 24.73%
- Non-sexual non-violent 28.51%
- Unspecified non-sexual 20.40%
The "effect size" in this analysis is a comparative measure
demonstrating that for every 100 youth who received alternative or
no treatment and then recidivated, 43 youth who received the primary
treatment went on to recidivate. When looking more closely at sexual
recidivism, youth who participated in treatment had a sexual recidivism
rate of 7.37% while youth in the control groups had a sexual recidivism
rate of 18.98%.
These relatively low recidivism rates and positive treatment effects
are encouraging. The higher rates of non-sexual recidivism demonstrate
the need to provide more comprehensive treatment aimed at all forms
of misconduct, not exclusively sexual abuse. Since punishment-only
approaches have repeatedly proven not to work, it is unconscionable,
as well as ineffective, not to provide youth with meaningful opportunities
to change. These results are certainly encouraging. Unfortunately,
there is not yet any published study of treatment outcomes with youth
who refused, never started, or dropped out of treatment.
The research shows that the right treatment approaches (primarily
cognitive-behavioral and multi-systemic) with the appropriate client
have a demonstrable positive impact on reducing recidivism. While certain
methods show results, the key to successful outcomes is a focus on:
- ensuring program fidelity to the model for clinical interventions,
- addressing not only sexual behaviors but issues that lead to
other criminal acts as well,
- adjusting treatment to accommodate youth with mental health,
neurodevelopmental, and cognitive deficits, and
- addressing family and other contextual issues.
All of these caveats point to the importance of quality clinical and
Mounting evidence demonstrates that treating juveniles can make our
communities safer and give youth who have sexually abused the opportunity
to live abuse-free lives. These interventions are most successful when
delivered by qualified clinicians adhering to current research and
tailored to meet the needs of a wide variety of youth who enter treatment.
Informed professionals should be concerned that too much of current
public policy is increasingly punitive, even while policy-makers insist
that they are working in the interest of community safety. Given the
current research into policy efforts and the effects of punishment,
society’s current response to sexual abuse does not prevent future
abuse. The concerns expressed here are not philosophical, but pragmatic.
The state of our knowledge places a heavy moral burden on those who
satisfy their need for revenge or "justice" with a retributive
approach while paying only lip service to healing. While implying a
moral high ground, punitive approaches can do more harm than good in
reducing sexual harm.
Author’s note: Joan Tabachnick, Steven Bengis, and Louise Prescott
contributed to this article through their helpful comments. Much of
this article is based on related material available at www.neari.com/news.
The complete Smith, Goggin, & Gendreau study is available at:
Juszkiewicz, J. (2000, December). Youth Crime/Adult Time: Is Justice
Served? Document in electronic library of the National Institute of
Corrections. Retrieved June 29, 2008 from http://nicic.org/Library/016611.
Also available at http://www.buildingblocksforyouth.org/ycat/ycat.html.
Levenson, J. S. (2007). Residence restrictions and their impact on
sex offender reintegration, rehabilitation, and recidivism. ATSA Forum,
Reitzel, L.R., & Carbonell, J.L. (2006). The effectiveness of
sexual offender treatment for juveniles as measured by recidivism:
A metaanalysis. Sexual Abuse: A Journal of Research and Treatment,
Ryan, G. & Lane, S. (1997). Juvenile sexual offending: Causes,
consequences, and correction. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Schwartz, B. Cavanaugh, D., Prentky, R., & Pimental, A. (2006).
Family violence and severe maltreatment in sexually reactive children
and adolescents. In R.E. Longo & D.S. Prescott (Eds.), Current
perspectives: Working with sexually aggressive youth and youth with
sexual behavior problems, pp. 443-472. Holyoke, MA: NEARI Press.
Smith, P., Goggin, C., & Gendreau, P. (2002). The effects of prison
sentences and intermediate sanctions on recidivism: General effects
and individual differences. (User Report 2002-01). Ottawa: Solicitor
Snyder, H., Sickmund, M., & Poe-Yamagata, E. (2000, August). Juvenile
transfers to criminal court in the 1990’s: Lessons learned from
four studies. U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Juvenile Justice
and Delinquency Prevention. Retrieved July 8, 2008 from http://nicic.org/Library/016347 and http://www.ncjrs.org/pdffiles1/ojjdp/181301.pdf