Recidivism of Sex Offenders
The criminal justice system manages
most convicted sex offenders with some combination of incarceration, community
supervision, and specialized treatment (Knopp, Freeman-Longo, and Stevenson,
1992). While the likelihood and length of incarceration for sex offenders
has increased in recent years (since 1980, the number of imprisoned sex
offenders has grown by more than 7 percent per year; in 1994, nearly one
in ten state prisoners were incarcerated for committing a sex offense [Greenfeld,
1997]), the majority are released at some point on probation or parole
(either immediately following sentencing or after a period of incarceration
in prison or jail). About 60 percent of all sex offenders managed by the
U.S. correctional system are under some form of conditional supervision
in the community (Greenfeld, 1997).
While any offender’s subsequent reoffending
is of public concern, the prevention of sexual violence is particularly
important, given the irrefutable harm that these offenses cause victims
and the fear they generate in the community. With this in mind, practitioners
making decisions about how to manage sex offenders must ask themselves
the following questions:
What is the likelihood that a specific
offender will commit subsequent sex crimes?
Under what circumstances is this offender
least likely to reoffend?
What can be done to reduce the likelihood
The study of recidivism—the commission
of a subsequent offense—is important to the criminal justice response to
sexual offending. If sex offenders commit a wide variety of offenses, responses
from both a public policy and treatment perspective may be no different
than is appropriate for the general criminal population (Quinsey, 1984).
However, a more specialized response is appropriate if sex offenders tend
to commit principally sex offenses.
The purpose of this paper is to examine
the critical issues in defining recidivism and provide a synthesis of the
current research on the reoffense rates of sex offenders. The following
sections summarize and discuss research findings on sex offenders, factors
and conditions that appear to be associated with reduced sexual offending,
and the implications that these findings have for sex offender management.
Although studies on juvenile sex offender response to treatment exist,
the vast majority of research has concentrated on adult males. Thus, this
paper focuses primarily on adult male sex offenders.
Issues in the Measurement of Sex
Research on recidivism can be used
to inform intervention strategies with sex offenders. However, the way
in which recidivism is measured can have a marked difference in study results
and applicability to the day-to-day management of this criminal population.
The following section explores variables such as the population(s) of sex
offenders studied, the criteria used to measure recidivism, the types of
offenses studied, and the length of time a study follows a sample. Practitioners
must understand how these and other study variables can affect conclusions
about sex offender recidivism, as well as decisions regarding individual
Defining the Sex Offender Population
Sex offenders are a highly heterogeneous
mixture of individuals who have committed violent sexual assaults on strangers,
offenders who have had inappropriate sexual contact with family members,
individuals who have molested children, and those who have engaged in a
wide range of other inappropriate and criminal sexual behaviors. If we
group various types of offenders and offenses into an ostensibly homogenous
category of "sex offenders," distinctions in the factors related to recidivism
will be masked and differential results obtained from studies of reoffense
patterns. Thus, one of the first issues to consider in reviewing any study
of sex offender recidivism is how "sex offender" is defined; who is included
in this category, and, as important, who is not.
Although there is common acceptance
that recidivism is the commission of a subsequent offense, there are many
operational definitions for this term. For example, recidivism may occur
when there is a new arrest, new conviction, or new commitment to custody.
Each of these criteria is a valid measure of recidivism, but each measures
something different. While the differences may appear minor, they will
lead to widely varied outcomes.
Subsequent Arrest—Using new charges
or arrests as the determining criteria for "recidivism" will result in
a higher recidivism rate, because many individuals are arrested but for
a variety of reasons, are not convicted.
new convictions is a more restrictive criterion than new arrests, resulting
in a lower recidivism rate. Generally, more confidence is placed in reconviction,
since this involves a process through which the individual has been found
guilty. However, given the process involved in reporting, prosecution,
and conviction in sex offense cases, a number of researchers favor the
use of more inclusive criteria (e.g., arrests or charges).
studies utilize return to prison as the criterion for determining recidivism.
There are two ways in which individuals may be returned to a correctional
institution. One is through the commission of a new offense and return
to prison on a new sentence and the other is through a technical violation
of parole. The former is by far the more restrictive criterion, since an
offender has to have been found guilty and sentenced to prison. Technical
violations typically involve violations of conditions of release, such
as being alone with minor children or consuming alcohol. Thus, the use
of this definition will result in the inclusion of individuals who may
not have committed a subsequent criminal offense as recidivists. When one
encounters the use of return to prison as the criterion for recidivism,
it is imperative to determine if this includes those with new convictions,
technical violations, or both.
Reliance on measures of recidivism
as reflected through official criminal justice system data obviously omit
offenses that are not cleared through an arrest or those that are never
reported to the police. This distinction is critical in the measurement
of recidivism of sex offenders. For a variety of reasons, sexual assault
is a vastly underreported crime. The National Crime Victimization Surveys
(Bureau of Justice Statistics) conducted in 1994, 1995, and 1998 indicate
that only 32 percent (one out of three) of sexual assaults against persons
12 or older are reported to law enforcement. A three-year longitudinal
study (Kilpatrick, Edmunds, and Seymour, 1992) of 4,008 adult women found
that 84 percent of respondents who identified themselves as rape victims
did not report the crime to authorities. (No current studies indicate the
rate of reporting for child sexual assault, although it is generally assumed
that these assaults are equally underreported.) Many victims are afraid
to report sexual assault to the police. They may fear that reporting will
lead to the following:
These factors are compounded by the
shame and guilt experienced by sexual assault victims, and, for many, a
desire to put a tragic experience behind them. Incest victims who have
experienced criminal justice involvement are particularly reluctant to
report new incest crimes because of the disruption caused to their family.
This complex of reasons makes it unlikely that reporting figures will change
dramatically in the near future and bring recidivism rates closer to actual
further victimization by the offender;
other forms of retribution by the offender
or by the offender's friends or family;
arrest, prosecution, and incarceration
of an offender who may be a family member or friend and on whom the victim
or others may depend;
others finding out about the sexual
assault (including friends, family members, media, and the public);
not being believed; and
being traumatized by the criminal justice
Several studies support the hypothesis
that sexual offense recidivism rates are underreported. Marshall and Barbaree
(1990) compared official records of a sample of sex offenders with "unofficial"
sources of data. They found that the number of subsequent sex offenses
revealed through unofficial sources was 2.4 times higher than the number
that was recorded in official reports. In addition, research using information
generated through polygraph examinations on a sample of imprisoned sex
offenders with fewer than two known victims (on average), found that these
offenders actually had an average of 110 victims and 318 offenses (Ahlmeyer,
Heil, McKee, and English, 2000). Another polygraph study found a sample
of imprisoned sex offenders to have extensive criminal histories, committing
sex crimes for an average of 16 years before being caught (Ahlmeyer, English,
and Simons, 1999).
For the purpose of their studies,
researchers must determine what specific behaviors qualify sex offenders
as recidivists. They must decide if only sex offenses will be considered,
or if the commission of any crime is sufficient to be classified as a recidivating
offense. If recidivism is determined only through the commission of a subsequent
sex offense, researchers must consider if this includes felonies and misdemeanors.
Answers to these fundamental questions will influence the level of observed
recidivism in each study.
Length of Follow-Up
Studies often vary in the length
of time they "follow-up" on a group of sex offenders in the community.
There are two issues of concern with follow-up periods. Ideally, all individuals
in any given study should have the same length of time "at risk"—time at
large in the community—and, thus, equal opportunity to commit subsequent
offenses. In practice, however, this almost never happens. For instance,
in a 10-year follow-up study, some subjects will have been in the community
for eight, nine, or 10 years while others may have been out for only two
years. This problem is addressed by using survival analysis, a methodology
that takes into account the amount of time every subject has been in the
community, rather than a simple percentage.
Additionally, when researchers compare
results across studies, similar time at risk should be used in each of
the studies. Obviously, the longer the follow-up period, the more likely
reoffense will occur and a higher rate of recidivism will be observed.
Many researchers believe that recidivism studies should ideally include
a follow-up period of five years or more.
Effect on Recidivism Outcomes
What are we to make of these caveats
regarding recidivism—do they render recidivism a meaningless concept? On
the contrary, from a public policy perspective, recidivism is an invaluable
measure of the performance of various sanctions and interventions with
criminal offenders. However, there is often much ambiguity surrounding
what appears to be a simple statement of outcomes regarding recidivism.
In comparing the results of various recidivism studies, one should not
lose sight of the issues of comparable study samples, criteria for recidivism,
the length of the follow-up period, information sources utilized to estimate
risk of reoffense, and the likelihood that recidivism rates are underestimated.
Factors Associated with Sex Offender
In many instances, policies and procedures
for the management of sex offenders have been driven by public outcry over
highly publicized sex offenses. However, criminal justice practitioners
must avoid reactionary responses that are based on public fear of this
population. Instead, they must strive to make management decisions that
are based on the careful assessment of the likelihood of recidivism. The
identification of risk factors that may be associated with recidivism of
sex offenders can aid practitioners in devising management strategies that
best protect the community and reduce the likelihood of further victimization.
It is crucial to keep in mind, however,
that there are no absolutes or "magic bullets" in the process of identifying
these risk factors. Rather, this process is an exercise in isolating factors
that tend to be associated with specific behaviors. While this association
reflects a likelihood, it does not indicate that all individuals who possess
certain characteristics will behave in a certain manner. Some sex offenders
will inevitably commit subsequent sex offenses, in spite of our best efforts
to identify risk factors and institute management and treatment processes
aimed at minimizing these conditions. Likewise, not all sex offenders who
have reoffense risk characteristics will recidivate.
This section explores several important
aspects in the study of recidivism and identification of risk factors associated
with sex offenders’ commission of subsequent crimes.
Application of Studies of General
The identification of factors associated
with criminal recidivism has been an area of significant research over
the past 20 years. This work has fueled the development of countless policies
and instruments to guide sentencing and release decisions throughout the
criminal justice system. If one assumes that sex offenders are similar
to other criminal offenders, then the preponderance of research should
assist practitioners in identifying risk factors in this population as
well. Gottfredson and Hirschi (1990) argued that there is little specialization
among criminal offenders. In this view, robbers also commit burglary and
those who commit assaults also may be drug offenders. The extensive research
on recidivism among the general criminal population has identified a set
of factors that are consistently associated with subsequent criminal behavior.
These factors include being young, having an unstable employment history,
abusing alcohol and drugs, holding pro-criminal attitudes, and associating
with other criminals (Gendreau, Little, and Goggin, 1996).
However, there is some evidence that
suggests that sexual offending may differ from other criminal behavior
(Hanson and Bussiere, 1998). Although sex offenders may commit other types
of offenses, other types of offenders rarely commit sex offenses (Bonta
and Hanson, 1995; Hanson, Steffy, and Gauthier, 1995). If this is the case,
then a different set of factors may be associated with the recidivism of
sex offenders than for the general offender population. This statement
is reinforced by the finding that many persistent sex offenders receive
low risk scores on instruments designed to predict recidivism among the
general offender population (Bonta and Hanson, 1995).
Identification of Static and Dynamic
Characteristics of offenders can
be grouped into two general categories. First, there are historical characteristics,
such as age, prior offense history, and age at first sex offense arrest
or conviction. Because these items typically cannot be altered, they are
often referred to as static factors. Second are those characteristics,
circumstances, and attitudes that can change throughout one’s life, generally
referred to as dynamic factors. Examples of dynamic characteristics
include drug or alcohol use, poor attitude (e.g., low remorse and victim
blaming), and intimacy problems. The identification of dynamic factors
that are associated with reduced recidivism holds particular promise in
effectively managing sex offenders because the strengthening of these factors
can be encouraged through various supervision and treatment strategies.
Dynamic factors can further be divided
into stable and acute categories (Hanson and Harris, 1998).
dynamic factors are those characteristics that can change over time,
but are relatively lasting qualities. Examples of these characteristics
include deviant sexual preferences or alcohol or drug abuse. On the other
hand, Hanson and Harris (1998) suggest that acute dynamic factors
are conditions that can change over a short period of time. Examples include
sexual arousal or intoxication that may immediately precede a reoffense.
Understanding Base Rates
Understanding the concept of "base
rates" is also essential when studying sex offender recidivism. A base
rate is simply the overall rate of recidivism of an entire group of offenders.
If the base rate for an entire group is known (e.g., 40 percent), then,
without other information, practitioners would predict that any individual
in this group has approximately a 40 percent chance of recidivating. If
static or dynamic factors related to recidivism are identified, error rates
can be improved and this information can be used to make more accurate
assessments of the likelihood of rearrest or reconviction. However, if
the base rate is at one extreme or the other, additional information may
not significantly improve accuracy. For instance, if the base rate were
10 percent, then practitioners would predict that 90 percent of the individuals
in this group would not be arrested for a new crime. The error rate would
be difficult to improve, regardless of what additional information may
be available about individual offenders. In other words, if we simply predicted
that no one would be rearrested, we would be wrong only 10 percent of the
time. It is quite difficult to make accurate individual predictions in
such extreme situations.
What has come to be termed as "the
low base rate problem" has traditionally plagued sex offender recidivism
studies (Quinsey, 1980). As noted previously, lack of reporting, or underreporting,
is higher in crimes of sexual violence than general criminal violence and
may contribute to the low base rate problem. The following studies have
found low base rates for sex offender populations:
Samples of sex offenders used in some
studies may have higher base rates of reoffense than other studies. Quinsey
(1984) found this to be the case in his summary of sex offender recidivism
studies, as have many other authors who have attempted to synthesize this
research. There is wide variation in results, in both the amount of measured
recidivism and the factors associated with these outcomes. To a large degree,
differences can be explained by variations in the sample of sex offenders
involved in the studies. Although this is a simple and somewhat obvious
point, this basic fact is "responsible for the disagreements and much of
the confusion in the literature" on the recidivism of sex offenders (Quinsey,
Hanson and Bussiere (1998) reported
an overall recidivism rate of 13 percent.
Grumfeld and Noreik (1986) found a 10
percent recidivism rate for rapists.
Gibbens, Soothill, and Way (1978) reported
a 4 percent recidivism rate for incest offenders.
Furthermore, results from some studies
indicate that there may be higher base rates among certain categories of
sex offenders (Quinsey, Laumiere, Rice, and Harris, 1995; Quinsey, Rice,
and Harris, 1995). For example, in their follow-up study of sex offenders
released from a psychiatric facility, Quinsey, Rice, and Harris (1995)
found that rapists had a considerably higher rate of rearrest/reconviction
than did child molesters.
Conversely, Prentky, Lee, Knight,
and Cerce (1997) found that over a 25-year period, child molesters had
higher rates of reoffense than rapists. In this study, recidivism was operationalized
as a failure rate and calculated as the proportion of individuals who were
rearrested using survival analysis (which takes into account the amount
of time each offender has been at risk in the community). Results show
that over longer periods of time, child molesters have a higher failure
rate—thus, a higher rate of rearrest—than rapists (52 percent versus 39
percent over 25 years).
Making Sense of Contradictory Findings
Studies on sex offender recidivism
vary widely in the quality and rigor of the research design, the sample
of sex offenders and behaviors included in the study, the length of follow-up,
and the criteria for success or failure. Due to these and other differences,
there is often a perceived lack of consistency across studies of sex offender
recidivism. For example, there have been varied results regarding whether
the age of the offender at the time of institutional release is associated
with subsequent criminal sexual behavior. While Beck and Shipley (1987)
found that there was no relationship between these variables, Clark and
Crum (1985) and Marshall and Barbaree (1990) suggested that younger offenders
were more likely to commit future crimes. However, Grunfeld and Noreik
(1986) argued that older sex offenders are more likely to have a more developed
fixation and thus are more likely to reoffend. A study by the Delaware
Statistical Analysis Center (1984) found that those serving longer periods
of incarceration had a lower recidivism rate—while Roundtree, Edwards,
and Parker (1984) found just the opposite.
To a large degree, the variation
across individual studies can be explained by the differences in study
populations. Schwartz and Cellini (1997) indicated that the use of a heterogeneous
group of sex offenders in the analysis of recidivism might be responsible
for this confusion:
"Mixing an antisocial rapist
with a socially skilled fixated pedophile with a developmentally disabled
exhibitionist may indeed produce a hodgepodge of results."
Similarly, West, Roy, and Nichols (1978)
noted that recidivism rates in studies of sex offenders vary by the characteristics
of the offender sample. Such a situation makes the results from follow-up
studies of undifferentiated sex offenders difficult to interpret (Quinsey,
One method of dealing with this problem
is to examine recidivism studies of specific types of sex offenders. This
approach is warranted, given the established base rate differences across
types of sex offenders. (Recent research suggests that many offenders have
histories of assaulting across genders and age groups, rather than against
only one specific victim population. Researchers in a 1999 study (Ahlmeyer,
English, and Simons) found that, through polygraph examinations, the number
offenders who "crossed over" age groups of victims is extremely high. The
study revealed that before polygraph examinations, 6 percent of a sample
of incarcerated sex offenders had both child and adult victims, compared
to 71 percent after polygraph exams. Thus, caution must be taken in placing
sex offenders in exclusive categories.) Marshall and Barbaree (1990) found
in their review of studies that the recidivism rate for specific types
of offenders varied:
In summary, practitioners should recognize
several key points related to research studies on sex offender recidivism.
First, since sexual offending may differ from other criminal behavior,
research specific to sex offender recidivism is needed to inform interventions
with sex offenders. Second, researchers seek to identify static and dynamic
factors associated with recidivism of sex offenders. In particular, the
identification of, and support of, "positive" dynamic factors may help
reduce the risk of recidivism. Third, although research studies on recidivism
of sex offenders often appear to have contradictory findings, variations
in outcomes can typically be explained by the differences in the study
populations. Finally, since base rate differences have been identified
across types of sex offenses, it makes sense to study recidivism of sex
offenders by offense type.
Incest offenders ranged between 4 and
Rapists ranged between 7 and 35 percent.
Child molesters with female victims
ranged between 10 and 29 percent.
Child molesters with male victims ranged
between 13 and 40 percent.
Exhibitionists ranged between 41 and
Review of Studies
The following sections present findings
from various studies of the recidivism of sex offenders within offense
categories of rapists and child molesters (the studies included in this
paper do not represent a comprehensive overview of the research on sex
offender recidivism. The studies included represent a sampling of available
research on these populations and are drawn from to highlight key points).
Overall recidivism findings are presented, along with results concerning
the factors and characteristics associated with recidivism.
There has been considerable research
on the recidivism of rapists across various institutional and community-based
settings and with varying periods of follow-up. A follow-up study of sex
offenders released from a maximum-security psychiatric institution in California
found that 10 of the 57 rapists (19 percent) studied were reconvicted of
a rape within five years, most of which occurred during the first year
of the follow-up period (Sturgeon and Taylor, 1980). These same authors
reported that among 68 sex offenders not found to be mentally disordered
who were paroled in 1973, 19 (28 percent) were reconvicted for a sex offense
within five years.
In a study of 231 sex offenders placed
on probation in Philadelphia between 1966 and 1969, 11 percent were rearrested
for a sex offense and 57 percent were rearrested for any offense (Romero
and Williams, 1985). Rice, Harris, and Quinsey (1990) conducted a more
recent study of 54 rapists who were released from prison before 1983. After
four years, 28 percent had a reconviction for a sex offense and 43 percent
had a conviction for a violent offense.
In their summary of the research on
the recidivism of rapists, Quinsey, Lalumiere, Rice, and Harris (1995)
noted that the significant variation in recidivism across studies of rapists
is likely due to differences in the types of offenders involved (e.g.,
institutionalized offenders, mentally disordered offenders, or probationers)
or in the length of the follow-up period. They further noted that throughout
these studies, the proportion of offenders who had a prior sex offense
was similar to the proportion that had a subsequent sex offense. In addition,
the rates of reoffending decreased with the seriousness of the offense.
That is, the occurrence of officially recorded recidivism for a nonviolent
nonsexual offense was the most likely and the incidence of violent sex
offenses was the least likely.
Studies of the recidivism of child
molesters reveal specific patterns of reoffending across victim types and
offender characteristics. A study involving mentally disordered sex offenders
compared same-sex and opposite-sex child molesters and incest offenders.
Results of this five-year follow-up study found that same-sex child molesters
had the highest rate of previous sex offenses (53 percent), as well as
the highest reconviction rate for sex crimes (30 percent). In comparison,
43 percent of opposite-sex child molesters had prior sex offenses and a
reconviction rate for sex crimes of 25 percent, and incest offenders had
prior convictions at a rate of 11 percent and a reconviction rate of 6
percent (Sturgeon and Taylor, 1980). Interestingly, the recidivism rate
for same-sex child molesters for other crimes against persons was also
quite high, with 26 percent having reconvictions for these offenses. Similarly,
a number of other studies have found that child molesters have relatively
high rates of nonsexual offenses (Quinsey, 1984).
Several studies have involved follow-up
of extra-familial child molesters. One such study (Barbaree and Marshall,
1988) included both official and unofficial measures of recidivism (reconviction,
new charge, or unofficial record). Using both types of measures, researchers
found that 43 percent of these offenders (convicted of sex offenses involving
victims under the age of 16 years) sexually reoffended within a four-year
follow-up period. Those who had a subsequent sex offense differed from
those who did not by their use of force in the offense, the number of previous
sexual assault victims, and their score on a sexual index that included
a phallometric assessment (also referred to as plethysmography: a device
used to measure sexual arousal (erectile response) to both appropriate
(age appropriate and consenting) and deviant sexual stimulus material).
In contrast to other studies of child molesters, this study found no difference
in recidivism between opposite-sex and same-sex offenders.
In a more recent study (Rice, Quinsey,
and Harris, 1991), extra-familial child molesters were followed for an
average of six years. During that time, 31 percent had a reconviction for
a second sexual offense. Those who committed subsequent sex offenses were
more likely to have been married, have a personality disorder, and have
a more serious sex offense history than those who did not recidivate sexually.
In addition, recidivists were more likely to have deviant phallometrically
measured sexual preferences (Quinsey, Lalumiere, Rice, and Harris, 1995).
In a study utilizing a 24-year follow-up
period, victim differences (e.g., gender of the victim) were not found
to be associated with the recidivism (defined as those charged with a subsequent
sexual offense) of child molesters. This study of 111 extra-familial child
molesters found that the number of prior sex offenses and sexual preoccupation
with children were related to sex offense recidivism (Prentky, Knight,
and Lee, 1997). However, the authors of this study noted that the finding
of no victim differences may have been due to the fact that the offenders
in this study had an average of three prior sex offenses before their prison
release. Thus, this sample may have had a higher base rate of reoffense
than child molesters from the general prison population.
Research reviewed to this point has
almost exclusively focused upon institutional or prison populations and
therefore, presumably a more serious offender population. An important
recent study concerns recidivism among a group of sex offenders placed
on probation (Kruttschnitt, Uggen, and Shelton, 2000). Although the factors
that were related to various types of reoffending were somewhat similar
with regard to subsequent sex offenses, the only factor associated with
reducing reoffending in this study was the combination of stable employment
and sex offender treatment. Such findings emphasize the importance of both
formal and informal social controls in holding offenders accountable for
their criminal behavior. The findings also provide support for treatment
services that focus on coping with inappropriate sexual impulses, fantasies,
and behaviors through specific sex offender treatment.
Synthesis of Recidivism Studies
There have been several notable efforts
at conducting a qualitative or narrative synthesis of studies of the recidivism
of sex offenders (Quinsey, 1984; Furby, Weinrott, and Blackshaw, 1989;
Quinsey, Lalumiere, Rice, and Harris, 1995; Schwartz and Cellini, 1997).
Such an approach attempts to summarize findings across various studies
by comparing results and searching for patterns or trends. Another technique,
known as meta-analysis, relies upon a quantitative approach to synthesizing
research results from similar studies. Meta-analysis involves a statistically
sophisticated approach to estimating the combined effects of various studies
that meet certain methodological criteria and is far from a simple lumping
together of disparate studies to obtain average effects.
Meta-analyses have certain advantages
over more traditional summaries in that through the inclusion of multiple
studies, a reliable estimation of effects can be obtained that is generalizable
across studies and samples. As noted earlier, the results obtained from
individual studies of sex offenders are heavily influenced by the sample
of offenders included in the research. Therefore, there is much to be gained
through the use of meta-analysis in summarizing sex offender recidivism
(see Quinsey, Harris, Rice, and Lalumiere, 1993).
As has also previously been observed,
it is imperative to distinguish between sex offense recidivism and the
commission of other subsequent criminal behavior, as well as the type of
current sex offense. One of the most widely recognized meta-analyses of
sexual offender recidivism (Hanson and Bussiere, 1998) was structured around
In Hanson and Bussiere’s meta-analysis,
61 research studies met the criteria for inclusion, with all utilizing
a longitudinal design and a comparison group. Across all studies, the average
sex offense recidivism rate (as evidenced by rearrest or reconviction)
was 18.9 percent for rapists and 12.7 percent for child molesters over
a four to five year period. The rate of recidivism for nonsexual violent
offenses was 22.1 percent for rapists and 9.9 percent for child molesters,
while the recidivism rate for any reoffense for rapists was 46.2 percent
and 36.9 percent for child molesters over a four to five year period. However,
as has been noted previously and as these authors warn, one should be cautious
in the interpretation of the data as these studies involved a range of
methods and follow-up periods.
Perhaps the greatest advantage of
the meta-analysis approach is in determining the relative importance of
various factors across studies. Using this technique, one can estimate
how strongly certain offender and offense characteristics are related to
recidivism because they show up consistently across different studies.
In the 1998 Hanson and Bussiere study,
these characteristics were grouped into demographics, criminal lifestyle,
sexual criminal history, sexual deviancy, and various clinical characteristics.
Regarding demographics, being young and single were consistently found
to be related, albeit weakly, to subsequent sexual offending. With regard
to sex offense history, sex offenders were more likely to recidivate if
they had prior sex offenses, male victims, victimized strangers or extra-familial
victims, begun sexually offending at an early age, and/or engaged in diverse
The factors that were found through
this analysis to have the strongest relationship with sexual offense recidivism
were those in the sexual deviance category: sexual interest in children,
deviant sexual preferences, and sexual interest in boys. Failure to complete
treatment was also found to be a moderate predictor of sexual recidivism.
Having general psychological problems was not related to sexual offense
recidivism, but having a personality disorder was related. Being sexually
abused as a child was not related to repeat sexual offending.
Studies that Focus on Dynamic
As noted earlier, the detection of
dynamic factors that are associated with sexual offending behavior is significant,
because these characteristics can serve as the focus of intervention. However,
many recidivism studies (including most of those previously discussed)
have focused almost exclusively on static factors, since they are most
readily available from case files. Static, or historical, factors help
us to understand etiology and permit predictions of relative likelihood
of reoffending. Dynamic factors take into account changes over time that
adjust static risk and informs us about the types of interventions that
are most useful in lowering risk.
In a study focused on dynamic factors,
Hanson and Harris (1998) collected data on over 400 sex offenders under
community supervision, approximately one-half of whom were recidivists
(for the purposes of this study, recidivism was defined as a conviction
or charge for a new sexual offense, a non-sexual criminal charge that appeared
to be sexually motivated, a violation of supervision conditions for sexual
reasons, and self-disclosure by the offender). The recidivists had committed
a new sexual offense while on community supervision during a five-year
period (1992-1997). A number of significant differences in stable dynamic
factors were discovered between recidivists and non-recidivists. Those
who committed subsequent sex offenses were more likely to be unemployed
(more so for rapists) and have substance abuse problems. The non-recidivists
tended to have positive social influences and were more likely to have
intimacy problems. There also were considerable attitudinal differences
between the recidivists and non-recidivists. Those who committed subsequent
sex offenses were less likely to show remorse or concern for the victim.
In addition, recidivists tended to see themselves as being at little risk
for committing new offenses, were less likely to avoid high-risk situations
and were more likely to report engaging in deviant sexual activities. In
general, the recidivists were described as having more chaotic, antisocial
lifestyles compared to the non-recidivists (Hanson and Harris, 1998).
The researchers concluded that sex
"…at most risk of reoffending
when they become sexually preoccupied, have access to victims, fail to
acknowledge their recidivism risk, and show sharp mood increases, particularly
In sum, because meta-analysis findings
can be generalized across studies and samples, they offer the most reliable
estimation of factors associated with the recidivism of sex offenders.
Most meta-analysis studies, however, have focused on static factors. It
is critical that more research be conducted to identify dynamic factors
associated with sex offender recidivism. These factors will assuredly provide
a foundation for developing more effective intervention strategies for
|Characteristics* of recidivists
*It should be noted that these are not
necessarily risk factors.
juvenile sexual offenses;
history of abuse and neglect;
long-term separations from parents;
negative relationships with their mothers;
diagnosed antisocial personality disorder;
substance abuse problems; and
chaotic, antisocial lifestyles.
Impact of Interventions on Sex
Although not the primary purpose
of this document, a few words regarding sex offender treatment and supervision
are in order. Factors that are linked to sex offender recidivism are of
direct relevance for sex offender management. If the characteristics of
offenders most likely to recidivate can be isolated, they can serve to
identify those who have the highest likelihood of committing subsequent
sex offenses. They can also help identify offender populations that are
appropriate for participation in treatment and specialized supervision
and what the components of those interventions must include.
When assessing the efficacy of sex
offender treatment, it is vital to recognize that the delivery of treatment
occurs within different settings. Those offenders who receive treatment
in a community setting are generally assumed to be a different population
than those who are treated in institutions. Thus, base rates of recidivating
behavior will differ for these groups prior to treatment participation.
Sex offender treatment typically
consists of three principal approaches:
In practice, these approaches are not
mutually exclusive and treatment programs are increasingly utilizing a
combination of these techniques.
the cognitive-behavioral approach,
which emphasizes changing patterns of thinking that are related to sexual
offending and changing deviant patterns of arousal;
the psycho-educational approach,
which stresses increasing the offender’s concern for the victim and recognition
of responsibility for their offense; and
the pharmacological approach,
which is based upon the use of medication to reduce sexual arousal.
Although there has been a considerable
amount of writing on the relative merits of these approaches and about
sex offender treatment in general, there is a paucity of evaluative research
regarding treatment outcomes. There have been very few studies of sufficient
rigor (e.g., employing an experimental or quasi-experimental design) to
compare the effects of various treatment approaches or comparing treated
to untreated sex offenders (Quinsey, 1998).
Using less rigorous evaluation strategies,
several studies have evaluated the outcomes of offenders receiving sex
offender treatment, compared to a group of offenders not receiving treatment.
The results of these studies are mixed. For example, Barbaree and Marshall
(1988) found a substantial difference in the recidivism rates of extra-familial
child molesters who participated in a community based cognitive-behavioral
treatment program, compared to a group of similar offenders who did not
receive treatment. Those who participated in treatment had a recidivism
rate of 18 percent over a four-year follow-up period, compared to a 43
percent recidivism rate for the nonparticipating group of offenders.
However, no positive effect of treatment
was found in several other quasi-experiments involving an institutional
behavioral program (Rice, Quinsey, and Harris, 1991) or a milieu therapy
approach in an institutional setting (Hanson, Steffy, and Gauthier, 1993).
On the other hand, an evaluation
of a cognitive-behavioral program that employs an experimental design presented
preliminary findings that suggest that participation in this form of treatment
may have a modest (though not statistically significant) effect in reducing
recidivism. After a follow-up period of 34 months, 8 percent of the offenders
in the treatment program had a subsequent sex offense, compared with 13
percent of the control group, who had also volunteered for the program,
but were not selected through the random assignment process (Marques, Day,
Nelson, and West, 1994).
Some studies present optimistic conclusions
about the effectiveness of programs that are empirically based, offense-specific,
and comprehensive. A 1995 meta-analysis study on sex offender treatment
outcome studies found a small, yet significant, treatment effect (Hall,
1995). This meta-analysis included 12 studies with some form of control
group. Despite the small number of subjects (1,313), the results indicated
an 8 percent reduction in the recidivism rate for sex offenders in the
treatment group. ( For the purposes of this study, recidivism was measured
by additional sexually aggressive behavior, including official legal charges
as well as, in some studies, unofficial data such as self-report.)
Recently, Alexander (1999) conducted
an analysis of a large group of treatment outcome studies, encompassing
nearly 11,000 sex offenders. In this study, data from 79 sex offender treatment
studies were combined and reviewed. Results indicated that sex offenders
who participated in relapse prevention treatment programs had a combined
rearrest rate of 7.2 percent, compared to 17.6 percent for untreated offenders.
The overall rearrest rate for treated sex offenders in this analysis was
13.2 percent. (Length of follow-up in this analysis varied from less than
one year to more than five years. Most studies in this analysis indicated
a three to five year follow-up period.)
The Association for the Treatment
of Sexual Abusers (ATSA) has established a Collaborative Data Research
Project with the goals of defining standards for research on treatment,
summarizing existing research, and promoting high quality evaluations.
As part of this project, researchers are conducting a meta-analysis of
treatment studies. Included in the meta-analysis are studies that compare
treatment groups with some form of a control group (average length of follow-up
in these studies was four to five years). Preliminary findings indicate
that the overall effect of treatment shows reductions in both sexual recidivism,
10 percent of the treatment subjects to 17 percent of the control group
subjects, and general recidivism, 32 percent of the treatment subjects
to 51 percent of the control group subjects (Hanson, 2000).
Just as it is difficult to arrive
at definitive conclusions regarding factors that are related to sex offender
recidivism, there are similarly no definitive results regarding the effect
of interventions with these offenders. Sex offender treatment programs
and the results of treatment outcome studies may vary not only due to their
therapeutic approach, but also by the location of the treatment (e.g.,
community, prison, or psychiatric facility), the seriousness of the offender’s
criminal and sex offense history, the degree of self-selection (whether
they chose to participate in treatment or were placed in a program), and
the dropout rate of offenders from treatment.
Juvenile Treatment Research
Research on juvenile sex offender
recidivism is particularly lacking. Some studies have examined the effectiveness
of treatment in reducing subsequent sexual offending behavior in youth.
Key findings from these studies include the following:
In a recently conducted study, Hunter
and Figueredo (1999) found that as many as 50 percent of youths entering
a community-based treatment program were expelled during the first year
of their participation. Those who failed the program had higher overall
levels of sexual maladjustment, as measured on assessment instruments,
and were at greater long-term risk for sexual recidivism.
Program evaluation data suggest that
the sexual recidivism rate for juveniles treated in specialized programs
ranges from approximately 7 to 13 percent over follow-up periods of two
to five years (Becker, 1990).
Juveniles appear to respond well to
cognitive-behavioral and/or relapse prevention treatment, with rearrest
rates of approximately 7 percent through follow-up periods of more than
five years (Alexander, 1999).
Studies suggest that rates of nonsexual
recidivism are generally higher than sexual recidivism rates, ranging from
25 to 50 percent (Becker, 1990, Kahn and Chambers, 1991, Schram, Milloy,
and Rowe, 1991).
There has been little research on
the effectiveness of community supervision programs (exclusively) in reducing
reoffense behavior in sex offenders. The majority of supervision programs
for sex offenders involve treatment and other interventions to contain
offenders’ deviant behaviors. Therefore, it is difficult to measure the
effects of supervision alone on reoffending behavior—to date, no such studies
have been conducted.
Evaluating the Effects of Interventions
Identification of factors associated
with recidivism of sex offenders can play an important role in determining
intervention strategies with this population. Yet, the effectiveness of
interventions themselves on reducing recidivism must be evaluated if the
criminal justice system is to control these offenders and prevent further
victimization. However, not only have there been few studies of sufficient
rigor on treatment outcomes, less rigorous study results thus far have
been mixed. Although one study may find a substantial difference in recidivism
rates for offenders who participated in a specific type of treatment, another
may find only a modest positive treatment effect, and still other studies
may reveal no positive effects. There has been even less research conducted
to evaluate the impact of community supervision programs in reducing recidivism.
More studies measuring the effects of both treatment and supervision are
necessary to truly advance efforts in the field of sex offender management.
Implications for Sex Offender
This paper presented a range of issues
that are critical in defining the recidivism of sex offenders. Although
there are certainly large gaps in criminal justice knowledge regarding
the determinants of recidivism and the characteristics of effective interventions,
what is known has significant implications for policy and intervention.
The heterogeneity of sex offenders
must be acknowledged.
Although sex offenders are often referred to as a "type" of offender, there
are a wide variety of behaviors and offender backgrounds that fall into
this classification of criminals (Knight and Prentky, 1990). As mentioned
earlier, many sex offenders have histories of assaulting across sex and
age groups—recent research (Ahlmeyer, Heil, McKee, and English, 2000) found
that these offenders may be even more heterogeneous than previously believed.
Criminal justice professionals
must continue to expand their understanding of how sex offenders are different
from the general criminal population.
Although some sex offenders are unique from the general criminal population
(e.g., many extrafamilial child molesters), others (e.g., many rapists)
possess many of the same characteristics that are associated with recidivism
of general criminal behavior. As criminal justice understanding of these
offenders and the factors associated with their behavior increases, more
refined classification needs to be developed and treatment programs need
to be redesigned to accommodate these differences.
Interventions should be based
on the growing body of knowledge about sex offender and general criminal
demonstrates that while sex offenders are much more likely to commit subsequent
sexual offenses than the general criminal population, they do not exclusively
commit sexual offenses. Therefore, some aspects of intervention with the
general criminal population may have implications for effective management
of sex offenders. Quinsey (1998) has recommended that in the absence of
definitive knowledge about effective sex offender treatment, the best approach
would be to structure interventions around what is known about the treatment
of offenders in general.
In the realm of interventions with
general criminal offenders, there is a growing body of literature that
suggests that the cognitive-behavioral approach holds considerable promise
(Gendreau and Andrews, 1990). Cognitive-behavioral treatment involves a
comprehensive, structured approach based on sexual learning theory using
cognitive restructuring methods and behavioral techniques. Behavioral methods
are primarily directed at reducing arousal and increasing pro-social skills.
The cognitive behavioral approach employs peer groups and educational classes,
and uses a variety of counseling theories. This approach suggests that
interventions are most effective when they address the criminogenic needs
of high-risk offenders (Andrews, 1982). The characteristics of programs
that are more likely to be effective with this population include skill-based
training, modeling of pro-social behaviors and attitudes, a directive but
non-punitive orientation, a focus on modification of precursors to criminal
behavior, and a supervised community component (Quinsey, 1998).
Although these program characteristics
may be instructive in forming the basis for interventions with sex offenders,
treatment approaches must incorporate what is known about this particular
group of offenders. A number of characteristics that are typically associated
with the recidivism of sex offenders were identified in this document,
including: victim age, gender, and relationship to the offender; impulsive,
antisocial behavior; the seriousness of the offense; and the number of
previous sex offenses. Also, an influential factor in sex offender recidivism
is the nature of the offender’s sexual preferences and sexually deviant
interests. The discovery and measurement of these interests can serve as
a focus for treatment intervention.
Dynamic factors should influence
individualized interventions. In
addition, dynamic factors associated with recidivism should inform the
structure of treatment and supervision, as these are characteristics that
can be altered. These factors include the formation of positive relationships
with peers, stable employment, avoidance of alcohol and drugs, prevention
of depression, reduction of deviant sexual arousal, and increase in appropriate
sexual preferences, when they exist.
Interventions that strive to facilitate
development of positive dynamic factors in sex offenders are consistent
with cognitive-behavioral or social learning approaches to treatment. Such
approaches determine interventions based upon an individualized planning
process, utilizing standard assessment instruments to determine an appropriate
intervention strategy. As Quinsey (1998: 419) noted "with the exception
of antiandrogenic medication or castration, this model is currently the
only approach that enjoys any evidence of effectiveness in reducing sexual
Although there have been many noteworthy
research studies on sex offender recidivism in the last 15 to 20 years,
there remains much to be learned about the factors associated with the
likelihood of reoffense. Ongoing dialogue between researchers and practitioners
supervising and treating sex offenders is essential to identifying research
needs, gathering information about offenders and the events leading up
to offenses, and ensuring that research activity can be translated into
strategies to more effectively manage sex offenders in the community. Ultimately,
research on sex offender recidivism must be designed and applied to practice
with the goals of preventing further victimization and creating safer communities.
Practitioners must continue to look
to the most up-to-date research studies on sex offender recidivism to inform
their intervention strategies with individual offenders. Researchers can
minimize ambiguity in study results by clearly defining measures of recidivism,
comparing distinct categories of sex offenders, considering reoffense rates
for both sex crimes and all other offenses, and utilizing consistent follow-up
periods (preferably five years of follow-up or more). In order to reduce
underestimations of the risk of recidivism, they also must strive to gather
information about offenders’ criminal histories from multiple sources,
beyond official criminal justice data. In comparing results of various
studies, practitioners should not lose sight of how these issues impact
Researchers must also continue to
accumulate evidence about the relationship of static and dynamic factors
to recidivism—such data can assist practitioners in making more accurate
assessments of the likelihood of reoffending. In particular, researchers
must strive to identify dynamic characteristics associated with sex offending
behavior that can serve as the focus for intervention. This information
can be utilized to categorize the level of risk posed by offenders, and
help determine whether a particular offender is appropriate for treatment
and specialized supervision. However, in order to make objective and empirically
based decisions about the type of treatment and conditions of supervision
that would best control the offender and protect the public, more rigorous
research is needed to study the effects of various treatment approaches
and community supervision on recidivism.
Tim Bynum, Ph.D., Michigan State
ariality, School of Criminal Justice, was the principal author of this
paper, with contributions by Madeline Carter, Scott Matson, and Charles
Onley. The Center for Sex Offender Management would like to thank David
D’Amora, Kim English, Robert Prentky, and Lloyd Sinclair for their assistance
and contributions to this article. Kristin Littel and Scott Matson edited
Center for Sex Offender Management
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Silver Spring, MD 20910
Phone: (301) 589-9383
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Established in June 1997, CSOM’s goal is to enhance
public safety by preventing further victimization through improving the
management of adult and juvenile sex offenders who are in the community.
A collaborative effort of the Office of Justice Programs, the National
Institute of Corrections, and the State Justice Institute, CSOM is administered
by the Center for Effective Public Policy and the American Probation and
This project was supported by Grant No. 97-WT-VX-K007,
awarded by the Office of Justice Programs, U.S. Department of Justice.
Points of view in this document are those of the authors and do not necessarily
represent the official position or policies of the U.S. Department of Justice.
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