Is it OK to Polygraph Juveniles?

Posted on May 9, 2012 by


Incarcerated juvenile offenders attend class at a correctional facility. Image: CrimeCents

Should we give lie detector tests to kids? What if those kids are offenders? What if they are sex offenders? What if the polygraph is used for treatment rather than investigation?

A recent article published in the Office of Juvenile Justice Delinquency and Prevention’s new Journal of Juvenile Justice discusses an exploratory study using polygraphs in male juvenile sex offenders.

This is the abstract from “Polygraph Testing for Juveniles in Treatment for Sexual Behavior Problems: An Exploratory Study”:

Post-adjudication polygraph testing for juveniles with sexual behavior problems remains controversial. This study investigated the impact of polygraph testing in a sample of 60 adolescent males participating in specialized outpatient treatment specific to this population. Polygraph testing resulted in a significant increase in the number of victims disclosed. The types of victims disclosed as a result of polygraph testing tended to be younger and male, compared with the types of victims disclosed before polygraph testing. There was a non-significant trend toward proportionately more disclosure of extra-familial victims during polygraph testing than before. In addition, a substantial proportion of participants revealed sexual contact with same-age peers that they had previously not disclosed during the course of treatment. Results suggest that polygraph testing may be used to gain additional information and potentially help to inform specialized treatment.

Complicated issues are buried in that dry, academic language.

When it comes to adult sex offenders, I have very little patience with the significant funding that is poured into sex offender treatment. We know from David Lisak‘s research on undetected rapists that most sexual assaults are committed by a very small but very dangerous group of men. Most men are not rapists, but those few who are perpetrate hundreds of crimes. So as much as I am impatient with harsh justice attitudes that advocate lock ’em up and throw away the key policies, for sex offenders it makes sense. Their crimes are heinous, second only to homicide in my book, and they are recidivists. I’d much rather spend correctional dollars on locking up this population and set all the marijuana users free.

But these are juveniles, not adults. And the juvenile sexual offender is a different story. The seventeen-year-old who assaults a girl he knows or is dating is very different from the eleven-year-old who is molesting a sibling. The first is an offender, in a straight forward way, most of the time. The second is a victim. Yes, he’s an offender too, but he offends because of his own victimization. Should we polygraph both of these hypothetical offenders?

And how will results be used? Will newly identified victims be contacted and offered services? What about the right to silence? Isn’t polygraphing through treatment a violation of the right to not self-incriminate? Will the results be used to treat the almost-adult rapist as an offender but handle the difficult victimization needs of the child who has been molested?

You won’t find answers to all of these questions in the full article, but it’s a worthwhile read nevertheless.