The Problem with Punishing Young People:
Causes for Concern and Hope

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.

The Issue

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 approaches included:

    • 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 were:

    • 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:

    1. ensuring program fidelity to the model for clinical interventions,
    2. addressing not only sexual behaviors but issues that lead to other criminal acts as well,
    3. adjusting treatment to accommodate youth with mental health, neurodevelopmental, and cognitive deficits, and
    4. addressing family and other contextual issues.

All of these caveats point to the importance of quality clinical and abuse-specific assessments.


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

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 Also available at

Levenson, J. S. (2007). Residence restrictions and their impact on sex offender reintegration, rehabilitation, and recidivism. ATSA Forum, XVIII(2).

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, 18, 401-421.

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 General Canada.

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 and