Should we be concerned about the treatment of young sex offenders once they get caught?

Sad teenGuest Post by Matt McCullough

When discussing sex offenders, there are often impassioned pleas for a harsh punishment. Given the fact that sex crimes can leave life-long trauma on victims, this makes sense. We want to see someone pay for the damage done. These calls for justice don’t allow for any sympathy toward the trauma that the perpetrator will face in the criminal justice system. Some might think that is as it should be, but is that really preventing these crimes from happening again? Thinking about the criminal justice system not only as a system of punishment but also as one of rehabilitation is a challenge. Why do these offenders deserve anything less than the harshest of treatment as a result of their actions? Shawn C. Marsh, Ph.D., the Chief Program Officer of Juvenile Law at the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges (NCJFCJ), has taken up the challenge of answering these questions as they pertain to youth offenders. We had a chance to sit down with him and talk about his work.


The main reason why we might look to a rehabilitative practices is that they are proven to be more effective at preventing future crime. A common misconception about youth sexual offenders is that their recidivism rate is high, that is they are likely to be repeat offenders. In fact, the opposite is true. According to Marsh, the recidivism rate for youth sexual offenders is around 10% without any treatment at all. In other words, for many of the remaining 90%, rehabilitation is effective and can be accomplished through community intervention. Screening can be done to determine which offenders are the least likely to be rehabilitated. By looking for risk factors such as cognitive function, impulsivity, boundary issues, lack of empathy, and conduct disorder, it is possible to determine who falls into the 10% of likely re-offenders. Marsh suggests that is the only group that society gains any benefit from keeping separated from the community through incarceration.

For the remaining 90% of youth offenders, research shows that limiting the exposure to the justice system is beneficial for rehabilitation. Many of the offenders are victims of trauma themselves and, often times it is these traumatic events that have led the person to offend in the first place. Interacting with the justice system is in itself another traumatic experience that adds to the original problem and creates more criminal activity. Being exposed to the justice system, especially incarceration, will frequently lead to social learning, called delinquency training, that reinforce the negative behaviors. As Marsh states, “trauma begets trauma”.

In addition, while it is true that early childhood trauma is a factor in the likelihood of committing an initial offense, it is not linked to recidivism. Given this, it is worth considering that research shows that punishment is most effective when it fits the crime in the mind of the offender, is close to the time of the offense, and that the overall exposure to the justice system should be as short as possible, preferably under 6 months. To help accomplish these aims, Marsh has been pushing to have courts adopt what is called a “Trauma Informed System of Care”. In this system, the judge takes these factors into consideration when determining the best course of action for any juvenile offender. Rehabilitation then comes in the form of learning correct boundaries, the ability to self-soothe, and cognitive behavior therapy, ideally in the community while under supervision. Though this looks like the courts are being soft on offenders, it recognizes that young people are still very malleable in their teenage years, and this is the best way to change criminal patterns of behavior.

With what is known about the possibility for first-time youth offenders to change, Marsh hopes that a better approach can be adopted by the courts. He hopes too that this approach will be understood by victims as the best way to reduce future violence and give them a satisfactory outcome. Knowing that the offender has accepted responsibility, has apologized for the transgressions, is taking steps towards rehabilitation and is unlikely to reoffend is generally enough for victims to feel that justice has been served. Especially if the punishment and rehabilitation are conducted in an ideal manner, we, as a society, can be reassured that we are responding in the most effective and compassionate way. The alternative is a punitive system that reinforces negative behaviors which then become entrenched in the offender’s personality, leaving us more vulnerable as a society. Marsh has seen some movements in the courts as the research becomes more clear. It is difficult to do, but having compassion and focusing on reducing trauma for everyone, including young offenders, offers the best hope we have of effectively ending the cycle of violence.

To read more about the work of Shawn C. Marsh, Ph.D., visit the NCJFCJ website:

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