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How likely are sex offenders to re-offend?

11-22-2009 National:

Studies suggest rates lower than popularly believed.

Sex offenders are often seen as incurable deviants who lurk in the shadows, waiting to prey on unsuspecting innocents.

But the term "sex offender," is actually much more complex, experts say, and a myriad of misconceptions exist about common traits associated with the population.

Not only that, but according to recent studies, recidivism rates for sexual felons may be lower than most people believe.

"The public doesn't quite understand recidivism," says Dr. Adam Deming, a psychologist and director of the Sex Offender Management and Monitoring Program. "They tend to believe all will recidivate."

"It varies tremendously," adds Dr. Jeff Burnett, a Mishawaka doctor who specializes in sex offender treatment, psychological evaluations and psychosexual assessments.

Community members often want to be cautious and conservative when assessing the danger of sex offenders because sexual assault and abuse can be so devastating.

But that caution, Burnett says, can at times lead to an overestimation of the risk.

Before delving into exact recidivism rates, it's essential to first define the word.

In some studies, recidivism is explained as a reconviction for a sexual offense. In others, it relates to an offender being charged with a new sex offense. Other statistics measure recidivism based on arrests for any new type of crime, and some gauge recidivism based on violations of conditional release requirements.

The different ways to measure recidivism make the simple question of how often sex offenders re-offend not so simple.

Length of time is also important to consider when reviewing recidivism, notes a 2004 recidivism study conducted by Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness Canada. The study included parts of the United States.

"For all crimes ... the likelihood that the behavior will reappear decreases the longer the person has abstained from that behavior," the study said.

In a 1994 study by the Bureau of Justice Statistics (published in 2003), the study found if sex offenders were re-arrested for a new sex crime, it was likely to happen within the first 12 months of their release.

In the first three years of being released, the study found that 5.3 percent of sex offenders had been rearrested for a sex crime.

The more recent 2004 Canadian/U.S. study (Sex Offender Recidivism: A Simple Question) showed overall recidivism rates based on re-convictions, were 14 percent after five years, 20 percent after 10 years, and 24 percent after 15 years.

"Most sexual offenders do not re-offend over time," the study found. "This may be the most important finding of this study, as this finding is contrary to some strongly held beliefs."

In short, after 15 years, 73 percent of sex offenders had not been charged or reconvicted of another sex offense.

All offenders are also not equally likely to reoffend.

Child molesters are 13 percent more likely to reoffend than rapists, according to the study.

In addition, Brunett lists three risk factors leading to a greater chance of recidivism. Offenders whose victims are male, unrelated to them, or a stranger are more likely to repeat their crimes.

Age of the offender also plays a role. The older the sex offender, the less likely they are to reoffend.

"Younger people are more impulsive," Burnett notes.

Other misconceptions include that all sex offenders were abused as children. In reality, only one third of sex offenders have abuse in their past, Burnett says.

And although cases where strangers sexually assault victims are usually more publicized, Deming points out that victims much more often know their perpetrator.

Recidivism rates of sex offenders are also not set in stone, according to the recent Canadian/U.S. study.

"The rate of sexual reoffense is quite likely to change over time due to social factors," the study says, "and the effectiveness of strategies for managing this population. ..Source.. ALICIA GALLEGOS

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