|The Complexities of Sex Offender Recidivism
Derek “The Fallen One” Logue
February 1, 2008, Last Update: February 16, 2012
One of the more commonly held sex offender myths is the belief that “sex offenders have a high recidivism rate.” In
one recent study, respondents estimated sex offense recidivism rates to be around 75%: "Sex offenders in general
were seen by our sample as the criminals most likely to re-offend, even though in toto they have lower re-arrest
rates for their crime of choice than other types of offenders” (Levenson, Branson, Fortney, and Baker 2007, p. 17).
The myth has reared its head in numerous places:
“The risk or recidivism posed by sex offenders is ‘frightening and high’.” (Smith v. Doe, 538 US at 103)
“Sex offenders pose an enormous challenge for policy makers: they evoke unparalleled fear among constituents…
Sex offenders have a high risk of re-offending” (NCMEC 2007)
Not surprisingly, the media has played a media role in perpetuating the myth. A recent report found that all
politicians derive that at least some of sex offender information from the media; even those who claimed to read
“official research reports” read media reports of the research rather than the actual reports:
“Although respondents suggested that they receive information about sex offending from several sources, all
acknowledge that, to some degree, they rely on government reports found in media accounts for their information
about the problem. Respondents also suggested that the constituents who pressure their representatives for action
very likely rely on the media for much of their information about sex offenders and offending. Directly or indirectly,
the media play a vital role in framing the legislative response to sex crimes.” (Sample & Kadleck 2008).
In reality, sex offenders are among the least likely to commit their crimes or any crime in general. In order to
understand the task at hand, a study in recidivism is necessary. Once you research recidivism on your own, you will
find the “simple” question of recidivism is actually quite complex.
Recidivism Defined: More complex than you think
The simple definition of recidivism is the rate at which an offender will commit another crime. However, studies vary
greatly on what constitutes “recidivism.” Harris and Hanson (2004), in a study of available recidivism studies, found
a variety of factors that greatly influence the final numbers of each study:
General and Specific Recidivism
One more factor must be addressed in reading a recidivism study: the type of recidivism studied. There are two
types of recidivism, general/ overall recidivism and specific recidivism.
Many studies, including the landmark US Department of Justice (2003) recidivism study, studies both types of
recidivism. For all intensive purposes, specific recidivism is likely the type of statistic that comes to mind when we
think of recidivism. However, as can be expected, general recidivism will always be higher than specific recidivism.
Simply put, specialization is another term for specific recidivism, the rate at which a certain type of offender will
commit the same type of crime. This is a mantra proponents of sex offender legislation love to quote and quote
often: “Sex offenders are X times more likely to re-offend sexually than non-sex offenders.” The US Dept. of Justice
3 year follow-up (2003) notes 5.3% of sex offenders released in 1994 were arrested for a new sex offense in 3
years, while 1.3% of all non-sex offenders were arrested for a sex crime. Thus, the magic number is four. There are
two issues with this line of logic.
First of all, specialization is no more common for sex offenders than any other type of offender; thieves are more
likely to steal, drug offenders are more likely to commit drug crimes, an so on. Furthermore, strong evidence
suggests sex offenders actually specialize at a lower rate than most other offenses. The Michigan Parole Board
study (2000) shows sex offenders committed sex crimes (2.46%) at a lower rate than forgers committing forgery
(6.86%), Burglars committing burglary (10.56%), robbers committing robbery (5.17%), Drug offenders committing
drug crimes (6.42%), and Larcenists committing larceny (12.65%).
Secondly, the statement takes places emphasis on sex offenders who commit sex crimes, while failing to address
the fact sex offenders commit only a small percentage of sex crimes that occur every year. Going by number of
offenders rather than percentages, The US Dept. of Justice (2003) study found that 517 sex offenders committed a
new sex crime, while 3,228 non-sex offenders committed sex crimes. That is roughly six times the number of sex
offenders committing sex crimes! Consider also the following statistic from the US Dept. of Justice (1997) study
which found 86% (about 6 of 7) of inmates in prison on sex crimes were first time offenders; only 14% had previous
sex crimes. Thus, this statement convolutes the bigger picture.
The Recidivism Curve
“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” (Harris & Hanson 2004, p.
4). The Florida Department of Corrections (2003) presents a very good chart of recidivism trends; while the article
refers to general recidivism, the same concepts apply to specific recidivism as well:
“This chart shows that re-offense rates increase most quickly immediately after release and grow more slowly as the
follow-up period increases. For example, in the first six months after release the re-offense rate grows to 12.1%, but
between 36 and 48 months after release the rate grows only 4.9 points from 39.9% to 44.8%. The pattern of re-
imprisonment rates is somewhat different, with the largest growth (5.8 points) occurring between 12 and 18 months
after release. This difference reflects the length of time required for the recidivists to be arrested, convicted,
sentenced, and delivered to the Department.”
This trend strongly suggests the first few years after release are the most critical. Based on this fact, it would be
difficult to deny the importance of a successful reintegration program for sex offenders newly released from prison.
The chart also reveals a very important fact, namely, the longer the offender is out of prison, the less likely the
offender will re-offend. I call this the “FALL;” a number of inmates suffer the “free at long last” mentality after leaving
prison, going back to the same environment upon release, not having learned anything from prison. There will
always be a small number of individuals who do this; many more inmates truly learned their lesson. The recidivism
curve merely shows that most who are destined to fail will do so right out the gate; thus, it is important to support
successful reintegration programs to lower the likelihood of recidivism.
The Harris and Hanson 2004 study (p. 8, Table 2) found that the 5 year recidivism rate for offenders who have
been out of prison five years was 7%; among offenders out 10 years, 5%; and among offenders out 15 years, 4%.
Sex Crimes among Sex Offender sub-groups
The Harris and Hanson study found recidivism differences between specific offense types, thus showing a need to
divide recidivism rates by offender type. In order from, least likely to re-offend to most likely to re-offend (in
parentheses, recidivism rates after 5 years, 10 years, and 15 years):
A Marshall and Barbaree (1990) study found an even greater discrepancy between those sex offenders with the
lowest recidivism rates (Incest offenders, 4%-10%) and those with the highest (Exhibitionists, 41%-71%).
Also worth noting, the Harris and Hanson study also found that one time offenders (10%, 15%, 19%) recidivated
lower than those who had two or more prior convictions (25%, 32%, 37%). In short, the need to break the general
“sex offender” group into a more specific offense category is seen as necessary.
Issues regarding Under-reporting Sex Crimes
The most popular trend to explain consistently low recidivism rates among sex offenders is trying to estimate the
amount of sex crimes that go unreported. Studies vary regarding the number of rimes that go unreported. As
previously noted, one study quoted in the Harris and Hanson study found that 59% of sex cases not reported to the
police were not reported because it wasn’t “important enough” to pursue, which implies a rather flexible definition of
what constitutes a sex crime.
The US Department of Justice conducts the “National Crime Victimization Survey” (NCVS) bi-annually, which
measures various crime statistics, whether reported or not. The NCVS studies estimates of non-reporting and the
reasons for non-reporting. The 2003 NCVS found that 67.3% of rapes and attempted rapes (attempts included
verbal threats of sexual violence) and 53.2% of sexual assaults go unreported (Table 91). The NCVS found
numerous reasons for lack of reporting; the reasons are listed below:
One major influence in the decision to report a crime is victim-offender relationship. The 2005 NCVS Table 104
illustrates this major difference between non-reporting with a stranger offender and an offender known to him.
Among the top reasons for non-reporting when a stranger is involved: Reported to another official (49.6%), Police
don’t want to be bothered (19.9%), Offender unsuccessful (12.7%), Fear of reprisal (11%), and Police inefficient,
ineffective, or biased (6.9%). Among the top reasons for non-reporting when a non-stranger is involved: Other
Reasons (47%), Private or personal matter (31.1%), Police don’t want to be bothered (10.8%), Report to another
official (5.1%), Police ineffective, inefficient, biased (2.8%), and Too incontinent, time consuming (2.4%).
The NCVS sex crimes definition:
The NCVS is very thorough, but there are a few problems. Firstly, it combines actual crimes with threats of crimes in
many places; Table 1 of the NCVS divides reported rapes (72,240) and attempted rape (44,650), but combines
sexual assault with attempt (81,950). Secondly, the reports are limited to crimes involving people age 12 and older,
no children. Thirdly, the phrase “verbal threats” is a rather vague term. Still, the NCVS is the most likely source for
under-reporting estimates. That being said, there are many reasons why certain crimes go unreported.
In an attempt to rectify certain issues with the NCVS, the DOJ conducted a study called “Sexual Assault of Young
Children as Reported to Law Enforcement: Victim, Incident, and Offender Characteristics” (2000). Since the NCVS
only relates to victims 12+ years of age, the study relied on the FBI’s National Incident-Based Reporting System
(NIBRS). While there is no feasible way to survey children on unreported sex crimes, this study offers up another X
factor to further complicate the issue: the number of sexual assaults committed by juveniles who are likely not a
registered sex offender. The study found that juveniles made up 23.2% of total sex crimes against children: 40% of
offenders of children under age 6 and 39% of offenders against children ages 7-11 were juveniles; and the single
age with the greatest number of offenders is 14 (p. 8).
In short, it is rather difficult to sufficiently determine just how many factors impact the ability to estimate exactly how
many crimes go unreported. On one hand, there is a number of sex crimes going unreported. On the other hand,
what are the reasons for the under-reporting? Also, how do we even determine a base number to use to determine
the total number of actual sex crimes being committed by people old enough to be sex offender recidivists? Do we
count verbal threats as bona fide sex crimes or not? In fairness, what about the number of false allegations? A
number of recent exonerations of convicted rapists as a result of DNA evidence immediately come to mind. And
sadly, sex crimes are typically he-said-she-said events. Even if we could somehow come up with a formula that
accurately portrays the amount of unreported crimes in general, how can we truly determine the number of
registered sex offenders that have committed these acts? In reality, this line of thinking merely serves to attempt to
explain an undesired result, namely, sex offenders have a lower recidivism rate than other offenders.
One final note: Patkin (2008) states that under-reporting for crime in general is under-reported; citing the 1999
NCVS, Patkin notes 64% of overall crime goes unreported. Thus, the idea that sex crimes go reported at a higher
rate than other crimes is another myth.
Factors in Recidivism
Another concern is the factors which play a role in recidivism. There are two main factors: Static and Dynamic.
Various studies conducted over the years have found a consistently low number of sex offenders who re-offend. In
light of the consistency of research, it would be hard-pressed to explain away why so many studies have come to
the same consistent conclusion.
US Department of Justice, “Recidivism of Sex Offenders Released into the Community in 1994.”
Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction, “Ten Year Recidivism Follow-up of 1989 Sex Offender Releases.”
Michigan DOC Parole Board Stats for parolees 1990-2000 (3 year follow-up)
Sex Offender Sentencing In Washington State: Recidivism Rates (5 year + 1 year for adjudication, based on
Arizona Dept. of Corrections follow up of SO released from 1984-1998 (up to 12 year follow-up period)
Arizona Three year study (2009) AZ Criminal Justice Commission
Utah Sentencing Commision/ Larry Bench study (2007) 25-year follow-up
Minnesota Recidivism study (2007) Minn. Dept. of Corrections
Alaska three year recidivism study (2007) Alaska Judicial Council
Harris and Hanson (2004) Summary of Canadian Recidivism studies (averaged percentages of recidivists after 5,
10, and 15 years respectively)
California study: Recidivism of Paroled Sex Offenders, 10 year study 1997 to 2007 (2008) California Sex Offender
Indiana Three Year Recidivism Rate 2005-2007 (2009) Indiana Department of Corrections
New York recidivism study (2009) NY Division of Criminal Justice Services (DCJS)
Orchowski and Iwama study (2009) Justice Research and Statistics Association
Maine 3 Year Recidivism Study (2010) USM Muskie School of Public Service
Connecticut 5 year Recidivism Study (2012)
The simple question of recidivism has a rather complex answer. However, the general consensus is our worst fear,
namely the number of sex offenders committing new sex crimes, is much lower than believed. Still, the recidivism
myth runs deep and proponents of sex offender legislation have given many excuses regarding the consistently low
numbers of sex specific recidivism. Some claim sex offenders “learn not to get caught again” (Hopkins 2007), others
look at the concept of unreported crimes, misread and misinform the public on research findings (whether
intentional or not), or simply reject the findings altogether. Regardless of the criticism, the fact remains that sex
offenders have a low recidivism rate, are less likely to commit crimes than other offenders, vary greatly by offense
type, are less likely to re-offend the longer they are out of prison, and make up only a fraction of sex crime arrests.
As long as the recidivism myth remains, there is little hope for progress in addressing the root causes of criminal
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