Justice and Compassion for Youthful Rapists

Few readers of this magazine will dispute the editorial opinion on July 5 noting the Supreme Court’s extension of Roper v. Simmons (1995). The current ruling stipulates that sentencing a juvenile to life without parole for a non-homicide offense violates the 8th Amendment ban on cruel and unusual punishment. Psychologists have written opinions to the court about the impulsivity characteristic of younger ages, effects of previous abuse on youthful offenders, and the lack of maturity in brain development. In certain venues there may be overly zealous prosecution of non-violent and property crimes (although the American Civil Liberties Union continues to be watchful on this front), leading far too many potentially good citizens of the future to be schooled and encouraged to commit future crimes while in prison.

All will agree that there is a compelling need for more treatment-based programs for children under 18, increased therapy and behavioral goals, and a structured and supportive system of after-care. The editorial this week mentions youth who murder and youth who commit property or nonviolent crime. There needs to be detailed examination of youthful offenses falling in between these extremes, and I hope in future online writings or even a detailed article in the print magazine to examine this subject in more detail.


Let’s consider youthful offenders who rape and the need to balance justice with compassion. The concept of justice must include not only what is proper and equitable for an individual but considerations for the protection of society, especially vulnerable individuals who might become future victims of those who have broken society’s laws. In the case of youthful offenders who rape, adolescent rapists are more likely to assault females; some rape children, others target older females. Because of this, we are dealing with an issue that includes a woman’s right to personal safety.

When youthful rapists are sent to rehabilitation programs rather than adult prisons, there is much lesser recidivism. However, not all youthful offenders are amenable to treatment--they lack empathy, engage in cruelty, and have deep-seated needs for control and dominance. Sadly, intractable youthful psychopathy exists.

How many women are raped each year by youthful offenders? How many of these youthful offenders will rape again after incarceration or treatment? One can find many different statistics, all alarming, with none approaching the precision of the hard sciences. One researcher wrote: “Regarding risk of sexual recidivism there continues to be a great need for research.” Many statistics on this topic suggest different numbers, so I think the best answer here is the one Rudy Giuliani gave to reporters on the evening of September 11, when asked of the number of casualties in New York. Giuliani said this was “More than we can bear,” and I think this accurately answers the topic we are discussing today, particularly when it concerns women who will be re-victimized.

Dr. Norman Reed is a clinical psychologist who consults with youth offender programs in Oregon. “One major problem is the manner in which the system diagnoses or labels youthful sex offenders,” Reed told me in a phone conversation. “The label rape is defined as unwanted sexual penetration or murder as the premeditated killing of another person. These labels do not take into account the etiology of a behavior. Common sense tells us that a behavior can have many etiologies. A rape may have occurred due to voices telling the person to do this, a gang leader commanding the perpetrator do perform this act or his family will be killed, or because the person has been raised in a culture (America) where they have been exposed to multiple rape scenarios on television, movies, at home, or on the web and are desensitized, think it is normal, or have their thinking impaired with drugs and alcohol.

“Again, there are multiple reasons why the behavior occurred which require different types of reformation planning, with some outcomes better than others. The victim, however, regardless of how the offender got there, is suffering from the behavior--the rape, and there are different levels of victimization and injury.

“In general,” Reed said, “the issue calls for assessment--what kind of youthful rapist are we dealing with and what kind of damage have they inflicted. With that kind of information, one can develop a sentence or reformation plan that is just to both the victim and offender.”

William Van Ornum


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Michael Cremin
8 years 6 months ago
While this may be an inconvenient truth (to borrow a phrase) levels of violent crime are very low in the US today because of long sentences for criminals. In other words, when those who are convicted of a crime are incarcerated, they are no longer out on the streets committing crimes. Sounds like common sense to me.
I find the quote provided by the author of this post to be incredible: "etiology of the behavior"? Under the influence of a gang leader, intoxicants, or cable television, people-even young people-have free will. I get so tired of the focus on the poor, suffering criminals. For every young person who commits a rape for any reason, there are many thousands, and tens of thousands, who do not. Crime is a choice, every time. Perhaps if the author of this post spent a bit more time worrying about the innocent victims of rapists, and less about the corrupting effect of television on rapists, he would be less morally confused.
There is an African saying that I like: "Pretty words and truth are not the same." Locking up criminals stops crime, regardless of the age of the criminal. Period.
we vnornm
8 years 6 months ago
Sorry but I think you missed the point. There's a strong emphasis in my post of the rights of victims-particularly woman victims. And for the protection of society.
"Sadly, intractable youthful psychopathy exists." There are some broken individuals that can't be healed. For these, very lengthy prison terms, yes, I am in strong agreement with you.
BTW, I have quoted an expert who has spent thousands of hours in jails, reformatories, and juvenile farms...please, let's respect that expertise. It takes real courage to do this kind of professional work.
I think I also agree with one underlying theme you are making...there are young people who are so broken (psychopaths) that treatment won't work. But to figure this out, assessment is needed. 
MJCIV, could you please identify yourself? First and last name, please. No hard feelings here. I would appreciate this reciprocal courtesy. This is one of our guidelines to keep the conversation civil. How about writing back with your name and we can keep this going at the level of the issue itself? Perhaps re-read the blog a couple of times and see if any other reactions emerge. 
Thanks for starting the discussion. It shows that you are concerned about this issue and willing to take a stand. It is a very important issue, and I think we both agree on its importance bvo
Beth Cioffoletti
8 years 6 months ago
It is not just inconvenient, it is false to say that violent crime is down because of long prison sentences.
There are many, many people (tens of thousands) who are in prison today who do not belong there.  Some are mentally ill.  Some are innocent.  Some are there because of mandatory sentencing precedures and their sentences far outweigh their culpability.  They are not violent and are no danger to society.  We spend roughly (on average across the states) $50,000 per year per prisoner.   This is a BIG BUSINESS that has absolutely nothing to do with justice or reducing crime.
Until you know personally the people and their families whose lives are shattered by long-term incarceration, I don't think you have a clue as to what goes on in the name of imprisonment and rehabilitation in this country.  It is the darkest corner of American culture, slavery gone underground.  Yes, there are criminals who need to be gotten off the streets, dangerous people who need to be locked up for their entire lives, people who need to be punished for their crimes.  But we lock up 12 year olds for their entire lives, never giving them an opportunity to redeem themselves! 
Never mind what this says about criminals, what does this say about us?!
I told myself that I was not going to respond to this post from Bill Van Ornum because I feel too strongly about the whole prison business, and I am too personally involved.  But I couldn't let the first comment stand without refuting it.
I agree with Bill that there are many young psychopaths out there who need to be gotten off the streets in order to protect women and society.  Like he says, rehabilitation has mixed results.  But we need to get a lot smarter about who we incarcerate and why.  We need to figure out who can be rehabilitated and live safely in society, and we need to release the people who have served their time and can live productively amongst us. 
Michael Cremin
8 years 6 months ago
Professor Van Ornum,
First, an apology: my tone was uncivil, and for that I apologize. Having had a relative both raped and murdered, I tend to have a hair-trigger on the issue of crime and punishment. You are correct in that-depending on circumstance-a young person should not be relegated to life behind bars. With that said, the SCOTUS decision removes the option of life without parole for someone who, although young, is an irredeemable sociopath... or am I reading this decision wrong? (And to address an obvious rebuttal: God may redeem sociopaths. Mankind isn't so good at it, at least thus far). I would err on the side of protecting the innocent over "maybe we can redeem him" every time.
I will defend my original point: violent crime rates are at a historical low in no small part because of long periods of jail time for criminals. Although I am not an expert, I recently read that the connection between crime and poverty is coming under question since poverty/joblessness is increasing while violent crime is decreasing. More inconvenient truths.
Yours is a thankless position, Professor, no doubt: who will defend criminals? I admire your willingness to do so, even as I question the wisdom of blaming forces outside of an individual for choices made by that individual, no matter how young.
Again, I'm sorry if my tone was harsh. I'd rather agree to disagree than be some jerk who writes unpleasant responses to thought-provoking articles.
My name is Michael. :)
PS Beth, I know people, too, whose lives have been destroyed by crime. You'll have to excuse me if I have no tears for the perpetrators of these crimes. Much of what you said is true. It is not, however, all that is true.
Michael Cremin
8 years 6 months ago
Norman wrote: ''People should do good and avoid evil - that will solve your problem of crime.'' 
Ummm...Norman? Wouldn't that actually solve the problem of crime? Maybe we can have Thomas Aquinas chime in....
Michael Cremin
8 years 6 months ago
Norman, thank you for that. I wasn't fishing for sympathy (although I certainly do appreciate it). My point of view has been formed by my experiences: I majored in Psychology, I lost my step-sister to violent crime (and watched her death destroy my father), I was a rape-crisis counselor, and I have worked in inner-city schools with kids who behave in the way that we are discussing. I am not an expert, but I am not uninformed, either.
We can agree to disagree. Again, thank you, and my apologies to everyone again for starting off this discussion with a bad tone.
8 years 6 months ago
There are reasons for all the decisions people make and acts they commit.  I wonder where we draw the line between determinism and free will and how we decide when someone is an actual moral agent.  I notice in myself a strong desire to hold  people responsible for what they do, no matter what the mitigating circumstances are.
David Nickol
8 years 6 months ago
What seems a particular shame to me is that there are not more options for dealing with offenders who are potentially dangerous only in certain situations. Instead of locking people up in prison for life on the chance that they might commit again crimes they were convicted for, why not find a place to put them where they can lead productive lives away from circumstances in which they would repeat their offenses. For example, I have an Internet chat buddy who works on an oil tanker, totally isolated from months at a time in an all-male environment. There must be many ways to deal with offenders who have served their sentences and are still considered risks to release into the general population. 
It does strike me that whereas murder used to be considered the ultimate crime, sex offenses have now moved to the top of the list. I am not sure how much of the current response is rational. We are beginning to see all kinds of complications, such as excessive regulation of where registered sex offenders may live, resulting either in homelessness or in clusters of sex offenders in a dwindling number of areas from which they are not banned. 
Yes, we can all understand an emotional reaction of "lock them up and throw away the key," but even setting aside humanitarian concerns for the offenders, it's expensive to keep people locked up. 
8 years 6 months ago
The subject of criminal justice of minor children arouses passions in most of us as well as differing ideas of how to deal with minors who commit crimes.  Many of us have experienced crimes such as muggings and thefts perpetrated by minors.  Like Michael, I experienced the unspeakable trauma of having a friend and coworker at Catholic Charities who was raped and murdered.  It is hard to be objective in these circumstances.  That is why we need experts like Dr. Norman Reed and Bill to give us solid information based on research and personal experience.    It is clear to me that proper assessment is critical in determining sentencing and access to rehab.  At a time of dwindling resources, it seems a prudent way to triage the large number of youth who are convicted of crimes.   Having been in the child protective field, I'm interested in knowing if there is any correlation between dependent children of the court and incidents of crime as juveniles and then as adults.  There was a county policy when I worked that mandated separate foster placements of delinquents (wards of the court) and dependents (victims of abuse, neglect).  Not because of the fear that the dependents would learn delinquent behavior, but because the dependents were far more likely to have severe psychopathology.    To me this says a lot about  the need to look at the etiologies of juvenile criminal behavior and to continually evaluate the services and resources of our child protective system.  I hope to read more on this subject in "America"!
we vnornm
8 years 6 months ago
I used to teach a class in the maximum security prison out here in NY. One of the guys (inmates) in my class finished his sentence and transferred to my on-campus class.
He fit in seamlessly with the class and a year later I saw him walk across the stage and receive his diploma.
Too many education programs have been cut in prisons...they provide (d) a great opportunity, not only for the inmates, but for those of us who were privileged to work with them. Isn't that one of the beatitudes...to visit those in prison?
best, bill
we vnornm
8 years 6 months ago
There is a great need for more discussion on the topic of choices, both philosophically and psychologically.
Thanks for writing. bill
we vnornm
8 years 6 months ago
Many thanks for writing back. Actually, one reason I wrote this blog was to point out that despite our compassion the needs of the victims must always be taken into account.
I grew up in Illinois and lived through the years when the city was terrorized by Richard Speck and John Wayne Gacy. Speck's death sentence was commuted and even though in prison he found a way to taunt the victim's family. The details of this are too terrible for me to write here. Anyone can read about it via google.
Many including myself would have seen this man's execution as not inconsistent with our faith, and indeed, an act of justice that would warn others to not ever do something like this again.
Gacy murdered between 30-40 young men, maybe more, and his last words on the way to the death chamber were "kiss my ass." Enough said about him.
I agree with you that the rights of the victims are too many times superceded by an almost reflexive sympathy for the perpetrator, especially in many with a Christian faith (including our own), and then there is talk of "forgiveness". It can be a sermonizing and sanctimonious attitude that serves to make the observer feel more holy. But who among us, other than the Lord, has the right to suggest another person needs to "forgive" someone for a crime of unspeakable horror against themselves or someone they love? 
Thanks for clarifying. I do not see your views as incompatible with our striving to lead a Christian life. Write me at ornum@earthlink.net if you want to correspond more. bill
we vnornm
8 years 6 months ago
Perhaps in this situation it's okay for M. not to disclose his full name...at least, with me. IMHO. thanks, bill
we vnornm
8 years 6 months ago
AHA! Something I have been wanting to write about for many years, and will have the opportunity to do in the near future, right here.
The political Left too often believes that political change, more government interventions or regulation or programs will bring about justice. The political Right has a tradition of emphasizing free choice and opportunity but unfortunately has become inextricably woven with powers of oppression/warfare or the false god of excessive profit. 
There is free will. There are choices, and consequences. More to be discussed here in the future. amdg, bill
we vnornm
8 years 6 months ago
I have had a number of men, both when in prison and later when released, tell me that they found violent acts a sort of "anti-depressant" when they were feeling depressed, despondent, and hopeless. They described the energizing lift. There used to be a diagnostic term "agitated depression." I think a good number of men (but not ALL) who act violently due so out of untreated depression and can be helped with proper treatment. These men contrast a sociopathy such as Ted Bundy.
Bipolar disorder can generate antisocial acts. In 14-15 year old young men, car thefts, sprees of vandalism, running away, and other "explosive" behaviors can be generated by untreated bipolar disorder. (Caveat: Many now are using this s an excuse. Some clinicians are seeing this term everywhere.) But I do believe a precise assessment can often find the youngsters who can truly be helped.
The same is true for young people who self-medicate because of underlying depression.
There is one young actress in the news today, one who endeared herself to many in Freaky Friday or Parent Trap, and I hope her period of in-house detention will in some way assist her and those who are trying to help her. The judge was right to take a hard line today, as this starlet was manipulating too many people. She needs to make the right choices.
best, bill
Michael Cremin
8 years 6 months ago
Let's try looking at it this way: how many juveniles who are convicted of rape (which is the crime we are talking about) fall in to the categories of excuses (or 'etiologies of behavior') that you've mentioned? Out of 100, how many raped a woman because of a diagnosable mental illness of such severity that they were incapable of controlling their behavior? Out of 100, how many were coerced-under the threat of their family members being killed-by a gang? Being under the influence of intoxicants, unless the the convicted were forced to consume them, is hardly an excuse. Being under the influence of culture is unprovable. And, how many juveniles who live in poverty, in broken homes, in violence haunted ghettos, and in failing educational environments-which are the social bogeymen we have all been told cause crime-do not commit rape?
What about plain old evil, Bill? Having worked with the victims of rape, I can tell you that the psychological and spiritual damage done to the victims is horrific (as I'm sure everyone in this discussion realizes). Our faith teaches us that, from the beginning, human beings have been capable of both good and evil. Why are so many people confused with evil appears in our world? It may be uncomfortable for us to recognize that a 'child' ('child' being a legal definition) is capable of evil...but they are. We are so busy pathologizing the intentions behind a crime like rape that we have lost sight of a simple truth: human beings can be evil. Even young ones. Incarceration may not be a perfect solution, but it certainly is a just one when the convicted has gone through our legal processes and been found guilty of the crime of rape. If nothing else, incarcertation stops that individual from comitting another act of violence against an innocent person...and that counts for a great deal.
8 years 6 months ago
I was thinking of your earlier post about the homeless people with psychiatric problems who were thought to pose a possible danger to people in the subways - most of the commentors to the post had no problem with forcing them to be medicated or incarcerated, even though they hadn't yet committed any crimes.  Why are  rapists more worth compassion?
About David N's comment o the oil rigs - reminds me of the movie "Escape from New York"  :)    There's the possibility that keeping criminals in such places would create a kind of ghetto, maybe?
 A link below to a  kind of interesting video/lecture byJonah Lehrer, who writes on neuroscience, on how and why kids (and adults) make decisions and how we can learn to reflect .....
Michael Cremin
8 years 6 months ago
Norman, I have nothing against looking for the root causes of crime: it is necessary and logical to do so. At the same time, we have spent countless tens of millions of dollars over the past several decades trying to figure out why people commit crimes (like rape). Our "solutions" have not reduced violent crime. What does reduce violent crime is locking up crmiinals (as well as more scientific police work). As I said, it is not a perfect solution; it is not, perhaps, even the last solution. It is a just solution. I am happy to cede the point that-in some instances-youthful offenders shouldn't be locked up forever. With that said, many youthful offenders should be.

I don't share your optimism about the power of social sciences to change human behavior.

We can agree to disagree. God bless you and your grandaughter.
we vnornm
8 years 6 months ago
The idea of places like an "oil tanker" where those at great risk to relapse could live some semblance of a normal life is an intriguing one, and I suspect if everyone devoted more time to this, many more similar possibilities could be discovered.
amdg, bill


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