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Sex Offender Recidivism: A Simple Question



This [Meta] study examines sexual recidivism, as expressed by new charges or convictions for sexual offences, using the data from 10 follow-up studies of adult male sexual offenders (combined sample of 4,724). Results indicated that most sexual offenders do not re-offend sexually, that first-time sexual offenders are significantly less likely to sexually re-offend than those with previous sexual convictions, and that offenders over the age of 50 are less likely to re-offend than younger offenders.

In addition, it was found that the longer offenders remained offence-free in the community the less likely they are to re-offend sexually. Data shows that rapists, incest offenders, "girl-victim" child molesters, and "boy-victim" child molesters recidivate at significantly different rates.

These results challenge some commonly held beliefs about sexual recidivism and have implications for policies designed to manage the risk posed by convicted sexual offenders. ..Source.. by Andrew J. R. Harris and R. Karl Hanson, Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness Canada

Quote from the study:

A Simple Question

The basic question about sexual offender recidivism is usually phrased along the following lines: "what percentage of sexual offenders commit another sexual offence once they've been released from prison?" This question is not as easy to answer as one might believe.

First, we must define "recidivism". In some studies, recidivism is defined as a reconviction for a sexual offence (e.g., Hanson, Scott & Steffy, 1995). In other studies, recidivism includes all offenders who were charged with a new sexual offence, whether or not they were convicted (e.g., Song & Lieb, 1995). Including charges along with convictions should, of course, lead to higher estimates of recidivism (Prentky, Lee, Knight & Cerce, 1997). Other studies have used expanded definitions of sexual recidivism that include informal reports to child protection agencies, self-report, violations of conditional release conditions, and simply being questioned by police (e.g., Marshall & Barbaree, 1988).

All else being equal, the estimated recidivism rate should increase with each expansion of the definition; the broader the definition, the larger the recidivism estimate should appear. Consequently, it is important to specify the recidivism criteria in any recidivism estimate (e.g., "what percentage of sexual offenders are either charged with, or convicted of, another sexual offence once they've been released from prison?")

Another factor to consider is the length of the follow-up period. As the follow-up period increases, the cumulative number of recidivists can only increase. It is important to remember, however, that an increase in the number of recidivists is not the same as an increase in the yearly rate of recidivism. For all crimes (and almost all behaviours) the likelihood that the behaviour will reappear decreases the longer the person has abstained from that behaviour. The recidivism rate within the first two years after release from prison is much higher than the recidivism rate between years 10 and 12 after release from prison. Consequently, any estimate of sexual re-offending must be "time-defined" or "time limited" (e.g., "over the first five years, post-release from prison, what percentage of sexual offenders are either charged with, or convicted of, another sexual offence?")

A third factor to consider is the diversity among sexual offenders. We know that incest offenders recidivate at a significantly lower rate than offenders who target victims outside the family (Hanson & Bussière, 1998). We also know that child molesters with male victims recidivate at a significantly higher rate than child molesters that only have girl victims (Hanson & Bussière, 1998). By considering the type of sexual offender, our simple question becomes, once again, more complex: (e.g., "over the first five years, post-release from prison, what percentage of child molesters with male victims are either charged with, or convicted of, another sexual offence?")

Many sexual offences are never reported to police; this is the same for all violent offences except murder. Our best estimates of unreported sexual offending come from victimization studies. In a typical study a random sample of people are telephoned and asked if they have been a victim of a crime within the last year. One recent victimization study found that there were approximately half a million sexual assaults (499,000) committed in Canada in 1999 (Besserer & Trainor, 2000). Although reports to police of violent and sexual crimes were steadily declining in Canada between the years 1993 and 1999; the years 2000 and 2001 saw 1% increases in violent and sexual crimes (Savoie, 2002). Sexual victimization rates based upon victimization surveys appear to have remained basically unchanged across this same time period (Besserer & Trainor, 2000). The Besserer and Trainor (2000) study showed that sexual assault had the highest percentage of incidents that were not reported to police (78%). When respondents were asked why they did not report sexual victimization to the police, 59% of the respondents stated that the "incident was not important enough" to report. Consequently, readers may wonder what counts as a sexual assault.

The Besserer and Trainor (2000) victimization study used a very broad definition of sexual assault. They counted all attempts at forced sexual activity, all unwanted sexual touching, grabbing, kissing, and fondling, as well as threats of sexual assault (Jennifer Tuffs, personal communication, January 15, 2003). Their broad definition undoubtedly included some behaviours that do not conform to the popular image of a sexual offence.

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