Juvenile sex offenders get an unlikely advocate

At a recent SORL meeting, the interesting case of Patty Wetterling was brought up. Wetterling is nationally known as the mother of an abducted child and fierce advocate for legislation designed to prevent sex crimes. Ms Wetterling’s story is particularly intriguing because, as of fairly recently, she has become more of a harsh critic of current sex offender policy than a proponent.

Wetterling’s unexpected change of heart arose from letters she received from juvenile sex offenders. These teenagers were apprehended for crimes that would be considered benign and normative by most and relegated to internet registries and community notification practices. For example, one letter Wetterling received detailed the blight of a 16 year old highschooler who copulated consensually with a 15 year old girl he had been dating for three weeks. When the girl became pregnant, the parents got the police involved, in part because the girl’s true age was 13. Although poor decisions were made by both parties in the letter, Wetterling could not justify subjecting this 16 year old boy to the same registry policy as the man who abducted her son.

Statistics on juvenile offenders exemplify Wetterling’s concerns. The U.S. department of Justice reports that juveniles comprise more than a quarter of sex offenders, and more than a third of all sex offenders who offend against a minor. Some of these offenders can be quite young, with 16% of cases reported to police involving a perpetrator under the age of 12. Because of juvenile’s unique developmental situation, imposing policies crafted for adult offenders could have different, potentially negative outcomes.

Wetterling’s convictions mirror the thoughts of several SORL students. One student in particular, Julia Campregher, is especially interested juvenile sex offenders and the detrimental consequences of subjecting them to harsh laws. Specifically, her master’s thesis aims to examine the public’s perception of sexual crimes committed by juveniles, and whether they warrant similar sanctions as adult sexual offenders. In additional to Julia’s thesis, the lab is reviving a research project looking at the collateral consequences juvenile offending has on the juveniles’ families. In the coming weeks, SORL students will gather and synthesize the available literature concerning familial consequences of juvenile sex offending, then actually go out and interview the families of juvenile offenders in order to better understand their struggles and experiences.

Between Julia’s master’s thesis and the group lab project, new research on juvenile offending will aid policymakers and the general public to better understand the social, legal, and personal implications of applying sex offender policy to juvenile offenders.

 Questions? Comments? Want more information? Email the author at: john.vaccaro@jjay.cuny.edu

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