A Broad Overview
“Sex offenders” have been in the news quite a bit in the last decade, and from the bulk of the media reports, you would expect that “sex offenders” are monsters without conscience who will inevitably rack up more and more victims until they die or are incarcerated for life. They are painted as inhuman.
As with most issues, the reality is not that simple, and the statistics and studies paint a more positive picture. For a briefer overview of several statistics and why they matter, see here.
While recidivism has several measures and issues of its own, sexual recidivism, one of the primary concerns of the public and lawmakers, is very low across many studies. While recidivism among “sex offenders” varies by crime, it is much more common for the average “sex offender” to be rearrested for a technical supervision violation than it is for a sexual crime. The biggest amount (95%) of sex crime is not committed by registered “sex offenders”, but by those new to the criminal justice system. Recidivism statistics paint an incomplete picture of true reoffending because it only measures those released from prison, not those given probation sentences. It also fails to account for underreporting. Regardless of these issues, recidivism accounts for a very small percentage of sexual crimes.
Therefore, the media focus on “sex offenders” is overblown. Not only are “sex offenders” wide and varied as a people group, their crimes are as well. In some states, kidnapping and murder are considered a “sex offense” worthy of “sex offender registration”, while in others, public urination, indecent exposure, and even consensual teenage sex will land someone on a “sex offender” registry. In many states, it is a crime for anyone to send explicit images of children, which means that teenagers can be convicted for “sexting” images of themselves to other classmates. So, the label of “sex offender” can apply not only to the true child predators and rapists it was intended to be applied to, but also to a wide variety of other crimes that have nothing to do with sex and people who do not put the public in any great danger.
The registry itself has evolved from being an investigative tool for law enforcement to a method of endlessly punishing anyone classified by law as being a “sex offender”. “Sex offenders” are banned from living in certain places by ordinance or state law, being near parks, and in some cases their names are publicly available on a searchable list. Some are banned from social media, although the Supreme Court of the United States recently ruled that such broad restrictions are against free speech. Some sex offenders can be held at mental hospitals for “treatment” if a judge deems they are enough of a public safety risk after they have completed their sentence. This has all been implemented in the name of public safety and protecting women and children from being sexually assaulted, yet virtually all policies that are aimed at “sex offenders” are only effective after a “sex crime” has occurred.
Much of the research that has been done on the effectiveness of these policies and beyond has only been done after the implementation of the policies. Studies that look at the public notification aspect of registration have found mixed results, no demonstrable effect, and even a higher rate of recidivism. Research into restrictions on where “sex offenders” can live have produced overwhelmingly uniform results: They increase public safety risk by interfering with where people can live, which makes it more difficult to get a job and successfully re-enter society.
In addition to this, there is research to suggest that harsher penalties are deterring reporting for fear of harsh consequences. Because most sex crimes are perpetrated by people known and trusted within a community, the community does not wish to deal harshly with someone they love and know well.
In short, the legislative focus on restricting and harshly punishing “sex offenders” is failing to protect children from child sexual abuse by ignoring the facts around how and why these heinous crimes are committed. Research suggests that, rather than treating sex crime as a criminal issue, it would be best to view it as a preventable mental health issue.
By treating it as a preventable health issue, interventions could be formed before a victim is harmed, rather than waiting until after this has happened and reacting to it. The laws that seek to address “sex offenders” fail to address sex crime because they can only ever address crime after it happens, never before the crime.
[ 1] Declaration of R. Karl Hanson, Doe vs. Harris, 2012
[ 2] Does A Watched Pot Boil? A Time-Series Analysis… Sandler, Freeman, & Socia, 2008)
[ 3] Megan’s Law: Assessing the Practical and Monetary Efficacy, National Institute of Justice, 2006
[ 4] Sex Offender Registration and Notification: Limited Effects in New Jersey, National Institute of Justice, 2009
[ 5] Do Sex Offender Registration and Notification Laws Affect Criminal Behavior?, Prescott and Rockoff, 2010
[ 6] Sex Offender Residence Restrictions, ATSA, 2008
[ 7] Housing and Placement, Center for Sex Offender Management
[ 8] Fundamental Principles of the Comprehensive Approach: Public Education, Center for Sex Offender Management
A Word About The Three Sections
Entire lists and “fact sheets” have been compiled by many organizations that will tell you what they say are facts and statistics about sex offenders. Many such sheets compiled by the media do not use accurate statistics, or they use accurate ones that paint a misleading picture.
The research in the “research” section are studies I have personally read and know that the methodology for their research is sound, that the research has been reviewed by other professionals in their field, and that many sources cite the research in question. I also check to see if there are similar studies that can reproduce the results of the study in question (replication). Why do I review the research before putting it into that section? That is because not all research is conducted correctly.
One outstanding example of this are recidivism studies: Some will only select arrests as recidivism rather than convictions, which paint an incomplete and abnormally high picture of reoffending (not everyone is convicted). Others will only study those released from prison, where the majority of offenders are given a light jail sentence or probation (in Minnesota, 75% of sex offenders are given probation or are juveniles, and both groups are not assigned a risk level). Some studies also fail to measure sexual recidivism separately from general recidivism, giving the false idea that sex offenders are at higher risk to commit a sexual crime than they are in reality.
The articles included below are from a variety of sources and contain a variety of statistics and general information about sex offenders, more for discussion purposes than for factual content.
The videos and podcasts included below are likewise from a variety of sources and are more for discussion purposes than for factual content.
Why is including this information important? Essentially the less we talk about issues related to sex crime, the more we ignore its existence, thereby enabling it to occur. An aware community is less vulnerable to sexual crimes because they are aware of the facts around how sex crimes happen and can then take appropriate measures to prevent them.