"Calling juveniles sex offenders in and of itself is not productive," Ryan said. "It is not productive to have them thinking of themselves as sex offenders, when that's not who we want them to be."
Despite the popular perception that sex offenders are extremely likely to repeat their crimes, studies show people convicted of sex crimes have among the lowest recidivism rates of any category of criminal, and those numbers are even lower for juveniles.
"The vast majority don't continue offending as adults," Ryan said. "They're more like other delinquents than like adult sex offenders."
Various studies reviewed by the federal government's Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention found that as few as 8 percent and as many as 14 percent of juvenile sex offenders commit new sex crimes.
A meta-analysis of 61 studies of adult sex offender recidivism put the rate for child molesters at 12.7 percent and for rapists at 18.9 percent, but the studies that were involved only considered reconviction rates. A more recent longitudinal study in Canada that considered self-reported acts that were not reported to police, however, found higher recidivism rates for adults: 22 percent for incest child molesters, 19.5 percent for non-incest child molesters and 17.1 percent for rapists.
"What virtually all of the studies show, contrary to popular opinion, is that relatively few JSOs [juvenile sex offenders] are charged with a subsequent sex crime," the report said. "Whether this is due to deterrence, humiliation, lack of opportunity, clinical treatment, increased surveillance or inadequate research methodology is difficult to ascertain."
Ryan, who has studied juvenile perpetrators for 20 years, said most juvenile sex offenders commit their crimes the way some kids shoplift or commit acts of vandalism, "pushing the limits." She said that in many cases she has looked at, particularly when the offenders were extremely young, such as 12 or 13, they did not even realize what they had done was against the law.
"But the effect on their lives is so much greater that the effect of other things they might get involved in," she said.
Advocacy groups that work for child victims of sexual abuse agree that juvenile offenders should be treated differently than adults, at least in part because many such offenders are victims of abuse themselves, and because it is believed that aggressive treatment can reduce the risk that sex offenders will repeat their crimes.
Ahearn said that while juvenile sex offenders need to be severely punished, they should not have their names put on adult sex offender registry Web sites.
Instead, she said, those with a "need to know," such as school officials, should be informed if a teenager is a convicted sex offender so that appropriate precautions can be taken.
Donna Coleman, director of Children's Advocacy Alliance, said too many juvenile sex offenders were victims before they became abusers.
"We have a mental health crisis in this country, especially with kids in foster care, and a lot of kids who have committed sex crimes come out of foster care, and they are in there because somebody has acted out on them," she said. "I don't think we should label them. We should try to rehabilitate them."