Sexual offending by young people is increasingly viewed as a social problem that requires a strong response, but there is little research on the legal treatment of youthful sex offenders. On the one hand, these youths may be viewed as potential future sex offenders; on the other hand, because of their youth and immaturity they may be considered more reformable than adults and their behaviour more excusable. This article builds on an archival study of 385 sexual offence cases, which were disposed in court and by conference and formal caution, in South Australia from 1995 to 2001. Drawing on the transcripts of 55 cases sentenced by judges (i.e. the most legally serious offences), we analyse sentencing discourses and outcomes using both the explicit and latent content of the sentencing remarks. Specifically, we explore the judges' orientations and aims when sentencing adolescent sex offenders, how judges reconcile the seriousness of offending and the youthfulness of offenders and how they balance the competing interests of victims and offenders. Two major findings emerge. First, the cases fell in a three-way typology patterned by the victims' age, the context of the offence and the offender's criminal history. Second, our study suggests that while youth court judges consider sexual offending against children as very serious and are concerned by future offending, they do not adopt a punitive approach, but rather a therapeutic and rehabilitative perspective at sentencing.