Can Adolescent Boys Be Sex Offenders If They Don’t Understand Sex?

This week, two 11-year-old boys, who were sentenced to three years probation for sexually assaulting an 8-year-old girl, became the youngest sex offenders in Britain.

Yet, it’s not clear whether they “assaulted” the girl or whether all three kids were engaging in the innocent, curious game of “show me yours and I’ll show you mine.” One day last October, the West London girl had come home to tell her mother that two local 10-year-old boys had shoved her off her scooter, pulled her pants down, and then raped her. Though, when questioned by authorities later, she said that she had “been naughty” and didn’t want to tell her mother. The case went to trial and this week the jury found the boys guilty of assault, though the judge gave them a light probation sentence, saying, to the boys, “something went too far” but ” … you didn’t realize how serious what you were doing was.”Although this seemed to be a complicated “he said, she said” kind of case with little evidence or fact, one wonders if such young kids should have been put on trial. Yesterday, writer Mary Elizabeth Williams wrote about the trial, asking readers a poignant question: “How young is too young to be accountable?” The boys will be under supervision and meet with social workers until they are 14, when their probation ends. As Williams says, “And we will only know if their sentence was too harsh or insufficient by what they become and how they behave in the next few years.”

What do you think: was this sentence too harsh? Do you think 11-year-olds can be “sex offenders”? [Salon]