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An Empirically-Based Approach for Prosecuting Juvenile Sex Crimes

This article discusses Paul Stern's recent publication, "An Empirically-Based Approach for Prosecuting Juvenile Sex Crimes." This resource, created as part of the Child Abuse Prosecution Project, a program developed by the Association of Prosecuting Attorneys, is available for download here.


When it comes to the topic of juvenile sexual offenders, legislation enacted in the aftermath of heinous crimes is particularly susceptible to be influenced by fear-driven public policy and a social preoccupation with sexual behavior instead of a focus on child development.

What happened to Adam Walsh in 1981 that led to the passing of Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act in 2006, or what happened to Megan Kanka in 1994 that led to the introduction of Megan’s Law in 1996 were despicable crimes committed against our country’s most innocent citizens. The legislation that was passed in the wake these tragedies was, for the most part, thoughtful and well-meaning. In the decades that followed, however, it became apparent that the laws were causing unforeseen, unintended, and often devastating consequences for children. During these same decades, our collective knowledge regarding juvenile sexual offenders grew, and the data allowed for more robust conclusions about effective treatment and prevention strategies. This data should allow us to reexamine policy and amend our legislation to avoid some of the unforeseen consequences and reach better outcomes for both juveniles with sexual behavioral problems and for the community as a whole.

Adolescents account for more than one-third of all known sexual assaults against minors; yet 80-95% of adolescents who have engaged in abusive sexual behavior do not sexually reoffend, even without formal therapeutic interventions.

Unfortunately, despite this wealth of information, positive change has been slow to come. Public policy has mostly continued down the path is started on in 1994, and attempting to amend our laws to ameliorate some of these negative consequences has been a trying activity, to say the least.

In this short history, we see the effect that particularly heinous crimes - like those committed against Adam and Megan – can have on our society. We see how they ingrain in our society an irrational fear, bolstered by social folklore, that is amplified by the justified, rational fear in our hearts. This begins to build an extremely effective barrier against change. Then, besides the fear and folklore, we must also contend with a self-perpetuating cycle of maintaining the status quo: The systems created by our public policy, and the entrepreneurs invested in those systems, can develop financial or ideological interests in maintaining public policy as it stands. This self-interest can spur campaigns of disseminating evidence, regardless of its empirical value, that helps support the viewpoints of these self-interested parties.

For too long, public policy has been governed by fear and by folklore

to create a system which frequently has made things worse.

So, when politicians and policymakers fail to act, Paul Stern says that it’s incumbent upon prosecutors to ensure that their decisions are guided by the best available research and an understanding of empirical information when they’re faced with the difficult task of prosecuting juvenile sexual offenders. Stern’s recently published paper, An Empirically Based Approach for Prosecuting Juvenile Sex Crimes, is a powerful tool for prosecutors to help them do the right thing and follow the evidence.

“My goals and motivations for writing this paper were two-fold,” said Stern. “One motivation was as a tribute to my dear friend, Mark Chaffin[1], who spent much of his career making an enormous contribution to a field that was dealing with these issues – how our system has inappropriately dealt with juveniles who have engaged in sexual aggressive behavior and how fouled public policy related to these juveniles has been. I wanted to try to take Mark’s body of work – it was brilliant – and see if I could present it in a way that would take it from policy to practice.” “Within that is my second motivation: This paper is also a call to my colleagues – my fellow prosecutors – to handle these cases smartly; with facts and wisdom, and with the understanding that being hard and seeming tough may not necessarily be the same as being smart.” Stern’s paper offers a summary of the existing reliable evidence regarding the prevalence and recidivism risk of juvenile sexual offenders as well as an overview of the effectiveness and consequences of some common treatments and interventions. He clearly explains the characteristics of most juvenile sex offenders, underscoring they typically have enormous differences to most adult sex offenders. He offers evaluative comparisons of various treatment programs. Finally, Stern’s paper offers a review of articulated rationales for the creation of significant legal and social policies regarding juvenile sex offenders with an examination of the empirical evidence which challenges or supports those policies. “Over my 35 years as a prosecutor, my ultimate goal was to hold people responsible for what they did, find an appropriate sentence consistent with the law, and try to do this in a way that best enhanced community safety. Using those components wisely affords the best opportunity to reduce recidivism, especially when you’re dealing with juveniles.” “Prosecutors knowing the underlying data is helpful. The decision of what to do with juveniles who have been accused of sex offenses is, in my opinion, the single hardest decision prosecutors routinely make. Some juveniles pose an extremely low risk, and some pose a significant risk, and these two groups can’t and shouldn’t be treated the same. Our energy and focus should be on identifying and handling these cases appropriately.” “We need to recognize that one of the most difficult decisions that prosecutors have to make is with juveniles charged with sexual inappropriately behavior. For systematic reasons, we often find less experienced prosecutors making these decisions, and that’s unfair to everyone. This paper, among other things, is a call to recognize this incredibly difficult decision that involves a variety of facts and calls for, when possible, the prosecutors assigned to these cases be among the most experienced.”

Paul Stern’s paper, available as a PDF download through this link:

was created as part of the Child Abuse Prosecution Project, a program developed by the Association of Prosecuting Attorneys.


Paul Stern was a prosecutor for 35 years, the last 32 of those for Snohomish County, in Everett, Washington. (He retired in September, 2016.) For those 32 years he handled predominately cases of sexual assault, crimes against children, homicides, domestic violence and the commitment of Sexually Violent Predators. He tried nearly 200 felony cases. Mr. Stern served on the Board of Directors for the American Professional Society on the Abuse of Children (APSAC) for six years and on the Board of the Association for the Treatment of Sexual Abusers (ATSA) for three years. He served on the advisory boards of both the community based and the prison based sexual offender treatment programs in Washington State. He was an advisor to the DSM-5 Committee on Sexual and Gender Identity Disorders. Mr. Stern has lectured on issues regarding the prosecution of cases of interpersonal violence in 37 states, eight countries and provided training to the FBI, the Scottish Police College, and the South African Police Service, among others. He has taught college classes on Crimes Against Children and Crimes of Interpersonal Violence. He has written more than 20 articles, three book chapters and a book on expert witnesses (Preparing and Presenting Expert Testimony in Child Abuse Litigation, published by Sage in 1997). He also wrote a manual for the Prosecution of Sexual Assault Cases in 1997, dealing predominately with assaults on adult victims.



[1] See Chaffin, M. (2008) Our minds are made up don’t confuse us with the facts: Commentary on policies concerning children with sexual behavioral problems and juvenile sex offenders. Child Maltreatment, Vol. 13, No. 2, 110121.

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