|Facts and Fiction about Sex Offenders
|By Chris Dornin, Retired Statehouse reporter
The political outlash against sex offenders is immense, irrational, and hard for legislators to reverse.
Sarah Agudo in the Northwestern University Law Review, 2008
Myth: Sex offenders are dirty old strangers who steal kids from playgrounds
An Ohio prison intake report on sex offenders imprisoned in 1992 revealed that 2.2 percent of child molesters were strangers to their victims, and 89 percent of perpetrators had never been convicted before.
In their 1993 textbook, The Juvenile Sex Offender, Howard Barbaree and colleagues estimated that teenagers perpetrated 20 percent of all rapes and half of all child molestations.
A 2006 report for the Ohio Sentencing Commission said 93 percent of molestation victims were well known to their perpetrators, over half the offenders victimized close relatives, and 93 percent of molesters had never been arrested for a previous sex crime.
A December 2009 study by David Finkelhor of UNH and colleagues for the US Justice Department analyzed national sex crime data from 2004. That year the estimated population of underage sex offenders was 89,000, and they had committed 35.8 percent of all sex crimes reported to police. One in eight juvenile sex offenders was under age 12. The study said that between 85 and 95 percent of young offenders would never face another sex charge.
Myth: Residency restrictions are harmless to sex offenders and protect kids
A 2005 survey of 135 Florida sex offenders by researchers Jill Levenson and Leo Cotter found that residency restrictions had forced 22 percent of this group to move out of homes they already owned. 25 percent were unable to return to their homes after release from prison. Respondents agreed in varying degrees with these statements about the impact of residency restrictions on their lives:
A 2007 report by the Minnesota Department of Corrections tracked 224 sex offenders released from prison between 1999 and 2002 who committed new sex crimes prior to 2006. The first contact between victim and offender never happened near a school, daycare center or other place where children congregate. The report concluded, “Not one of the 224 sex offenses would likely have been deterred by a residency restrictions law.” The study warned that these laws isolate offenders in rural areas with little social and treatment support, with poor transportation access and with few job opportunities. The resulting increase in homelessness makes them harder to track and supervise. “Rather than lowering sexual recidivism,” the report said, “housing restrictions may work against this goal by fostering conditions that exacerbate sex offenders’ reintegration into society.”
A position paper on the current website of the Iowa Association of Social Workers says that concentrations of Iowa sex offenders are living in motels, trailer parks, interstate highway rest stops, parking lots and tents. The site notes many other unintended consequences:
Myth: Treatment is a waste of money on sex offenders
The New Hampshire Prison sex offender treatment program compiled recidivism data in 1999 for a national survey by the Colorado Department of Corrections. Lance Messenger, the New Hampshire program director at the time, reported a 6.2% sex crime re-arrest rate after an average of 4.8 years on parole for 204 men who completed the Intensive Sex Offender Treatment Program. The recidivism rate was 12.4% for 435 sex offenders who received no treatment and had spent an average of 8.6 years in the community. Messenger is now in private practice and recently told this writer his report did not constitute a rigorous scientific study.
A study in 2000 by the Vermont Corrections Department tracked 190 sex offenders released a decade earlier. The arrest rate over 10 years for new sex offenses was 3.8 percent for people who had completed the sex offender treatment program. It was 22.4 percent for those who started the program, but dropped out or got kicked out. Those who never attended had a 27 percent recidivism rate.
A 2003 New Zealand study led by Ian Labie entitled, “Paedophile programmes work,” found that 175 offenders who completed treatment while on parole had an average sexual recidivism rate of 5 per cent over four years. Two control groups without treatment attained rates of 21 and 25 percent.
A Colorado recidivism study in 2003 led by Kerry Lowden tracked 3338 sex offenders released from prison between 1993 and 2002. After three years in the community, 5.3 percent had been arrested for a new sex crime. Each month an inmate took part in the intensive therapeutic community for sex offenders behind the walls reduced by 1 percent his risk of committing a later sex crime. The report said these treatment programs “profoundly improve public safety as measured by officially recorded recidivism.”
Vermont corrections personnel tracked 195 adult male sex offenders over a six-year period ending in 2006. Those who completed sex offender treatment had a sex-offense recidivism rate of 5.4 percent, compared with 30 percent for people who never took that treatment.
Lorraine R. Reitzel and Joyce L. Carbonell published a meta-analysis in 2006 of nine studies of recidivism among juvenile sex offenders with a combined sample of 2,986 kids. The sex crime recidivism rate was 12.5 percent for young offenders tracked for an average of 59 months. The rate was 7.37 percent for kids who had taken a sex offender treatment program and 18.9 percent for those who had not.
A 2009 report by Robin Goldman of the Minnesota Department of Corrections compared two samples of 1,020 sex offenders released between 1999 and 2003. One group had taken an intensive sex offender treatment program and the other had not. The treated group had a 27 percent lower sex crime recidivism rate. The report concluded, “These findings are consistent with the growing body of research supporting the effectiveness of cognitive-behavioral treatment for sex offenders.”
Myth: Sex offenders have a 94 percent recidivism rate
Proponents of tough sanctions against sex offenders often cite a Canadian study published in 2004, “Lifetime Sex Offender Recidivism: A 25 year Follow-Up Study,” led by Canadian researcher Ron Langevin. The authors looked at 320 Canadian sex offenders referred to a single clinic for psychiatric evaluations between 1966 and 1974, when treatment programs for this group were uncommon. The report used an unusual definition of a recidivist as someone who had committed two or more sex crimes in their lifetime, even crimes they did before researchers began to follow them.
Langevin reported a 61.1 percent sex crime recidivism rate, including 51.1 percent for incest. The researchers also tabulated confessions the offenders made during counseling and new arrests that failed to bring convictions. Adding those presumed crimes to actual convictions increased the overall sexual recidivism rate to 88.3 percent, including 84.2 percent for incest. Measured this way, molesters of young children outside their own family had an even higher rate, 94.1 sex crime recidivism over 25 years. To this writer’s knowledge, that is the highest reported rate in any of the hundreds of existing recidivism studies. It underlies much of the widespread belief that all sex offenders are incurable and unrepentant.
Critics of Langevin claim his cohort was the worst of the worst offenders. Canadian researcher Karl Hanson has called it a nonrandom sample chosen for evaluations in connection with major prosecutions, civil commitment proceedings or insanity defense cases. This group also came under scrutiny in a different era when sex offender treatment programs were rare and experimental. The ensuing revolution in child protection and sex abuse prosecution over half a century has swollen American prison populations of sex offenders by fifty- and a hundred-fold. The group in prison now is arguably less prone to recidivism than members of the Langevin study.
Canadian researcher Cheryl Webster and colleagues have called the Langevin study so flawed it lacks any scientific integrity. In a rebuttal entitled “Results by Design: The Artefactual Construction of High Recidivism Rates for Sex Offenders,” Webster said more than half the individuals in the sample were already recidivists by Langevin’s definition at the time of their evaluations, thus ensuring at least a 50 percent recidivism rate. In the rest of the literature on criminology and in the popular press, recidivism generally means a new crime committed after release from prison.
Webster noted the Langevin sample was much larger at first. His team removed any people from the study whose criminal records had been lost or purged from the justice system after 15 years for lack of new crimes or charges. In effect, the scientists deleted most of the non-recidivists and thereby skewed the recidivism rate. In a reply to his critics, Langevin cautioned against making claims about all sex offenders based on this sample. He defended his definition of recidivism as one of many legitimate ways to measure it.
Those promoting tough sex offender laws rely as well on a 1997 study led by Robert Prentky. His group looked at 136 rapists and 115 child molesters released from the Bridgewater sex offender civil commitment center in Massachusetts between 1959 and 1986. The sexual recidivism rates based on new sexual charges were 32 percent for molesters and 25 percent for rapists. But the length of time the men were free in the community varied widely. If all had been at large the full 25 years covered in the study, the authors estimated the sexual recidivism rates would have been 52 percent for molesters and 39 percent for rapists.
This research dates from the same period as the Langevin findings and looked at a narrow sample of men already adjudicated to be an acute risk to reoffend. The average rapist had 2.5 sex crimes on his record before the crime that sent him to Bridgewater. The child molesters averaged 3.6 sex offenses prior to the crime that triggered civil commitment. Using Lengevin’s method, the recidivism rates for both groups would have been nearly 100 percent. The Prentky researchers concluded, “The obvious, marked heterogeneity of sexual offenders precludes automatic generalization of the rates reported here to other samples.”
Fact: Most types of sex offenders have low sex-crime recidivism
A report to the Ohio Sentencing Commission in 1989 said 8 percent of sex offenders were convicted of a new sex crime within a decade. The 10-year Ohio recidivism rate for incest was 7.4 percent.
A 1998 Canadian Government study by Karl Hanson and Monique Bussiere, entitled “Predicting Relapse: A meta-Analysis of Sexual Offender Recidivism Studies,” examined 61 research efforts between 1943 and 1995 with a combined sample of 28,972 sex offenders. The overall recidivism rate for new sex offenses was 13.4 percent during the average follow-up period of four to five years. Of the 9,603 child molesters in the combined cohort, the rate was 12.7 percent. Some of these studies dated back to the period when only stereotype serial sex offenders went to prison, thus weighting the results toward greater recidivism.
Roger Hood and three British colleagues followed 162 released sex offenders for four years and tracked 62 others for six years. Their report in 2002, entitled “Sex offenders emerging from long-term imprisonment; A Study of Their Long-term Reconviction Rates and of Parole Board Members' Judgements of Their Risk,” found 1.2 percent were re-imprisoned for a new sex crime after two years. The report concluded, “These facts need to be more widely recognized and disseminated if there is to be rational debate on this emotive subject.”
A 2000 Iowa Corrections study tracked 233 sex offenders released in 1995 and 1996 under a new sex offender registry law. That group had a 3 percent sex crime recidivism rate after 4.3 years in the community. A similar control group of 201 sex offenders released before the registry law took effect had a 3.5 percent sex recidivism rate in the same length of time. The group supervised under the registry had a somewhat lower average recidivism risk score to begin with, and it had a higher proportion of people on probation as opposed to parole. The difference in recidivism rates was statistically insignificant.
A U.S. Justice Department report in 2003 tracked 9,691 sex offenders released from prisons in New York, California, Ohio and 12 other large states in 1994. Their recidivism rate for new sex arrests and convictions after three years on parole was 5.3 percent. 7.3 percent of child molesters with two or more prior arrests for that crime were charged anew for molesting. That compares with a 2.4 percent sexual recidivism rate for child molesters with only one prior arrest for that crime.
Karl Hanson and Andrew Harris published a 2004 report on 4,724 sex offenders in 10 Canadian and American samples ranging from 191 to 1,138 subjects. The average follow-up period was seven years after release. The overall sexual recidivism rates were 14 percent after five years, 20 percent after 10 years and 24 percent after 15 years. Incest offenders had corresponding rates of 6, 9 and 13 percent. Recidivism was defined as a new sex crime arrest or a new conviction. Counting only new convictions, the recidivism rates were generally half as high.
Karl Hanson and Morton-Bourgon published a similar meta-analysis in 2005 of 73 recidivism studies with a combined cohort of 19,267 sex offenders. After an average of nearly six years in the community they had a new sex crimes recidivism rate of 14.3 percent.
A 2005 report by Robert Barnoski of the Washington State Institute for Public Policy tracked the five-year sexual recidivism rates for 8,359 sex offenders released from Washington prisons between 1986 and 1999. Here are the results by year of release, showing the rate decreased over time.
A 2006 New York study analyzed the recidivism patterns for 19,827 sex offenders. The rate for new sex offenses after one year in the community was 2 percent. The cumulative rate increased to 3 percent after two years, 6 percent after five years, and 8 percent after 8 years.
A 2006 California study followed 93 adjudicated high-risk sexually violent predators released from civil commitment at the Atascadero State Hospital. Only 4.3 percent of these worst-of-the-worst offenders had committed new sex offenses after six years on the street.
A 2007 study by the Missouri Department of Corrections tracked 3,166 sex offenders released between 1990 and 2002. Twelve percent had been re-arrested for a new sex crime in those 12 years, and 10 percent had been reconvicted. The report also looked at sex offenders released in 2002. In the first three years on parole their sex crime recidivism rate was 3 percent. The report concluded, “Due to the dramatic decrease in sexual recidivism since the early 1990s, recent sexual re-offense rates have been very low, thus significantly limiting the extent to which sexual reoffending can be further reduced.”
An Alaska Judicial Council report in 2007 said 3 percent of sex offenders had committed a new sex crime in their first three years after release from prison.
A 2007 report by the Tennessee Department of Safety found that 4.7 percent of 504 sex offenders released from prison in 2001 were arrested for a new sex offense after three years. The sex crime recidivism rate was zero for offenders whose original crime was incest.
A 2007 Minnesota Department of Corrections study tracked 3,166 sex offenders released from Minnesota prisons between 1990 and 2002. After an average of 8.4 years in the community, 10 percent had been convicted of a new sex offense. Those released in the beginning of the study period were much more likely to reoffend within three years than those released later -- 17 percent in 1990 as opposed to 3 percent in 2002.
A 2007 report by Jared Bauer of the West Virginia Division of Corrections tracked 325 sex offenders for three years after release from prison in 2001, 2002 and 2003. The recidivism rate for any return to prison, not just for sex crimes, was 9.5 percent. Only six parolees returned for new sex related crimes, including three for failing to properly register as a sex offender. The sex crime recidivism rate was slightly less than 2 percent. Only 1 percent had an actual sex crime victim.
A 2008 report by the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation tracked 4,280 sex offenders paroled in 2003. In the first year 2.43 percent had been arrested for new sex crimes. The cumulative totals were 3.27 percent at the end of the second year and 3.55 percent after three years.
A 2008 study by California's Sex Offender Management Board reported on 4,204 sex offenders released in 1997 and 1998. 3.38 percent were convicted of new sex offenses in the next decade.
Utah criminologist Larry Bench tracked 389 Utah sex offenders for up to 25 years after release. His 2008 report disclosed that 7.2 percent had been arrested for a new sex crime.
An Indiana Corrections report in the spring of 2009 found that sex offenders released in 2005 had compiled a 1.05 percent sex crime re-conviction rate in three years. The study said this rate was “extremely low” and showed “a great deal of promise.”
Stan Orchowsky and Janice Iwama authored a 2009 study for the U.S. Justice Research and Statistics Association which showed similar low sex crime re-arrest rates after three years for sex offenders released from prison in 2001. The rates by state were as follows: Alaska 3.4%, Arizona 2.3%, Delaware 3.8%, Illinois 2.4%, Iowa 3.9%, New Mexico 1.8%, South Carolina 4.0%, and Utah 9.0%. The comparison three-year national rate was 5.3 percent noted previously for inmates released in 1994.
Chris Dornin is a retired newspaper journalist and volunteer into NH Prison who watched the New Hampshire legislature enact its recent sex offender laws. He can be reached at 603-228-9610 begin_of_the_skype_highlighting 603-228-9610 end_of_the_skype_highlighting or email@example.com .
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