Juvenile offenders on rise in sex cases

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STOCKTON, Calif. (AP) — Courts have seen the number of sex-offense cases involving juvenile offenders rise dramatically in recent years, an Associated Press review of national statistics found, and treatment professionals say the offenders are getting younger and the crimes more violent.

Some psychologists blame the increase in numbers — 40 percent over two decades — on a society saturated with sex and violence and the fact that many of the accused were themselves victims of adult sexual predators.

Others say there aren’t more children committing such crimes, but simply more awareness, better reporting and a general hysteria about sex offenders.

“I don’t think it’s appropriate to suggest we have whole schools full of sexual predators … but we’re seeing more of it and more sexually aggressive acts,” said Scott Poland, past president of the National Association of School Psychologists. “How do these kids even know about this? It’s permeated throughout our society.”

Robert Prentky, a psychologist and nationally renowned specialist on sex offenders in Bridgewater, Mass., said he thinks the statistics are misleading.

“There aren’t more kids; there are more laws,” he said. “We now have fairly draconian laws with very harsh sanctions that apply to juveniles.”

The number of children younger than 18 accused of forcible rape, violent and nonviolent sex offenses rose to 33,800 in 2004 from 24,100 in 1985, the AP’s analysis found. Violent offenses include attempted rape and sexual assault, while nonviolent offenses including fondling, statutory rape and prostitution.

By comparison, rape and sexual assaults by adults decreased more than 56 percent from 1993 to 2004. Comparable statistics were unavailable before 1993.

The AP analyzed state and federal crime statistics, as well as independent research on juvenile sex offenders. Sources included the U.S. Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Statistics; the National Center for Juvenile Justice, a Pennsylvania-based nonprofit that specializes in statistical and policy research; and the Safer Society Foundation Inc., a Vermont nonprofit that works to prevent sexual abuse.

Studies show that half of all sex offenders began their sexually abusive behavior as juveniles.

Franklin Zimring, a juvenile-justice specialist at the University of California at Berkeley, said he thinks many children are unnecessarily treated as sex offenders. True pedophiles are extremely rare among young people, he said.

“As long as the public temperature is up, you’re going to get more referrals from the courts for treatment,” Mr. Zimring said. “If you don’t want to lock a kid up, treatment is a politically safe outcome.”

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