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How Likely Are Sex Offenders to Repeat Their Crimes?

January 2008:

In debates over laws monitoring released sex offenders, it’s common to hear claims that they’re sure to commit more sex crimes. “‘What we’re up against is the kind of criminal who, just as soon as he gets out of jail, will immediately commit this crime again at least 90 percent of the time,” a California legislator told the New York Times in 1996. (Other examples of such rhetoric are collected here.) Fox News — like the Wall Street Journal owned by News Corp. — said of child molesters in 2005, “Not only are they almost certain to continue sexually abusing children, but some eventually kill their young victims.”

But as my print column this week points out, the numbers don’t bear this out. Recidivism rates vary widely depending on which crimes are counted, the timeframe of the studies, and whether repeat offenses are defined by convictions, arrests, or self-reporting. But even the author of a widely published report suggesting a recidivism rate of 52%, Wisconsin psychologist Dennis Doren, told me of the notion that all sex criminals are likely to re-offend, “There is no research support for that view, period.” Dr. Doren, evaluation director at the Sand Ridge Secure Treatment Center in Mauston, Wisc., added, “You’re not talking to a bleeding-heart kind of guy here.”

Yet incorporating convicted sex offenders’ undetected crimes can lead to higher numbers, such as one controversial Canadian study that found long-term recidivism could be as high as 88.3%. (It was debated in the Canadian Journal of Criminology and Criminal Justice in 2006.) Critics say that rate was artificially increased by the study’s design.

This isn’t just an academic exercise. The conventional wisdom on sex-crime recidivism, coupled with high-profile sex crimes against children, has helped spur the spate of registry and neighbor-notification laws, even before they could be properly studied for their impact on recidivism rates. Several researchers, including Dr. Doren, say that residency-restriction laws may be counterproductive. Such a constraint “drives them out of their community, and leads to a lack of stability,” said Karen J. Terry, a criminologist at John Jay College in New York. “Those are some of the underlying conditions that caused them to abuse in the first place.” A consensus on how to measure recidivism, and determine its baseline rate, would help evaluate such laws.

This research is expensive and long-term follow-ups are, by definition, slow to produce results. Even if we were to know whether rates have declined in recent years, it would be difficult to isolate the cause. Dr. Doren proposes several alternate explanations for his perception that rates have declined in recent years, including better and more frequent treatment, and closer monitoring.

Meanwhile, the existing research raises tough questions about the relative danger child molesters pose to society. Their likelihood of being convicted for a crime after release is much lower than average for all criminals released from prison, and even for all sex offenders, at least in the short term, as measured by a Bureau of Justice Statistics study and others. Yet their crimes, when they do repeat child abuse, are unusually harmful, and their victims particularly vulnerable. Does that justify the closer monitoring of child molesters after release, compared with other criminals? Dr. Doren isn’t sure, pointing out, for example, that convicted rapists are more likely to re-offend in the years immediately after release, and more likely to commit other violent crimes. “If we’re concerned about violence generically, it’s rapists we should be concerned about” in the short term, he said.

What do you think? What is the best way to measure recidivism rates, and what should be measured? Do the numbers justify registries and neighbor notification? Please let me know in the comments.

Further reading: Other newspapers previously have pointed out that measured recidivism rates appear to contradict conventional wisdom. Some states are attempting to fine-tune their post-release plans for sex offenders based on differing rates of recividism; here’s an article about the plan in Texas. Illustrating the difficulty of measuring the effect of interventions on recidivism rates, a Canadian study found that sex offenders who completed treatment were far less likely to re-offend — but that may not mean the treatment itself was successful. Instead, it might just demonstrate that a willingness to complete treatment is an indicator of other factors that diminish the likelihood of repeating a sexual crime. ..Source.. by Carl Bialik, Wall Street Journal

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