Facts and Fiction about Sex Offenders

The political outlash against sex offenders is immense, irrational, and hard for legislators to reverse.
Sarah Agudo in the Northwestern University Law Review, 2008

Myth: Sex offenders are dirty old strangers who steal kids from playgrounds


An Ohio prison intake report on sex offenders imprisoned in 1992 revealed that 2.2 percent of child molesters were strangers to their victims, and 89 percent of perpetrators had never been convicted before.

In their 1993 textbook, The Juvenile Sex Offender, Howard Barbaree and colleagues estimated that teenagers perpetrated 20 percent of all rapes and half of all child molestations.

A 2006 report for the Ohio Sentencing Commission said 93 percent of molestation victims were well known to their perpetrators, over half the offenders victimized close relatives, and 93 percent of molesters had never been arrested for a previous sex crime.

A December 2009 study by David Finkelhor of UNH and colleagues for the US Justice Department analyzed national sex crime data from 2004. That year the estimated population of underage sex offenders was 89,000, and they had committed 35.8 percent of all sex crimes reported to police. One in eight juvenile sex offenders was under age 12. The study said that between 85 and 95 percent of young offenders would never face another sex charge.

Myth: Residency restrictions are harmless to sex offenders and protect kids

A 2005 survey of 135 Florida sex offenders by researchers Jill Levenson and Leo Cotter found that residency restrictions had forced 22 percent of this group to move out of homes they already owned. 25 percent were unable to return to their homes after release from prison. Respondents agreed in varying degrees with these statements about the impact of residency restrictions on their lives:

    • I cannot live with supportive family members. 30%
    • I find it difficult to find affordable housing. 57%
    • I have suffered financially. 48%
    • I have suffered emotionally. 60%
    • I have had to move out of an apartment that I rented. 28%


The Iowa County Attorneys Association issued a position paper in 2006 opposing a 2,000 foot residency restriction against sex offenders from places where kids congregate. Among many criticisms, the prosecutors said, “Law enforcement has observed that the residency restriction is causing offenders to become homeless, to change residences without notifying authorities of their new locations, to register false addresses or to simply disappear. If they do not register, law enforcement and the public do not know where they are living. The resulting damage to the reliability of the sex offender registry does not serve the interests of public safety.”

A 2007 report by the Minnesota Department of Corrections tracked 224 sex offenders released from prison between 1999 and 2002 who committed new sex crimes prior to 2006. The first contact between victim and offender never happened near a school, daycare center or other place where children congregate. The report concluded, “Not one of the 224 sex offenses would likely have been deterred by a residency restrictions law.” The study warned that these laws isolate offenders in rural areas with little social and treatment support, with poor transportation access and with few job opportunities. The resulting increase in homelessness makes them harder to track and supervise. “Rather than lowering sexual recidivism,” the report said, “housing restrictions may work against this goal by fostering conditions that exacerbate sex offenders’ reintegration into society.”

A position paper on the current website of the Iowa Association of Social Workers says that concentrations of Iowa sex offenders are living in motels, trailer parks, interstate highway rest stops, parking lots and tents. The site notes many other unintended consequences:

  • Families of offenders who attempt to remain together are effectively subjected to the same restrictions, meaning that they too are forced to move, and may have to leave jobs, de-link from community ties, and remove their children from schools and friends.
  • Physically or mentally impaired offenders who depend on family for regular support are prevented from living with those on whom they rely for help.
  • Threat of family disruption may leave victims of familial sexual abuse reluctant to report the abuse to authorities, thereby undermining the intention of the law.
  • Threat of being subjected to the residency restriction has led to a significant decrease in the number of offenders who, as part of the trial process, disclose their sexual offenses; consequently, fewer offenders are being held accountable for their actions.
  • Loss of residential stability, disconnection from family, and social isolation run contrary to the “best practice” approaches for treatment of sex offenders and thus put offenders at higher risk of re-offense.
  • No distinction is made between those offenders who pose a real risk to children and those who pose no known threat.


Myth: Treatment is a waste of money on sex offenders

The New Hampshire Prison sex offender treatment program compiled recidivism data in 1999 for a national survey by the Colorado Department of Corrections. Lance Messenger, the New Hampshire program director at the time, reported a 6.2% sex crime re-arrest rate after an average of 4.8 years on parole for 204 men who completed the Intensive Sex Offender Treatment Program. The recidivism rate was 12.4% for 435 sex offenders who received no treatment and had spent an average of 8.6 years in the community. Messenger is now in private practice and recently told this writer his report did not constitute a rigorous scientific study.

A study in 2000 by the Vermont Corrections Department tracked 190 sex offenders released a decade earlier. The arrest rate over 10 years for new sex offenses was 3.8 percent for people who had completed the sex offender treatment program. It was 22.4 percent for those who started the program, but dropped out or got kicked out. Those who never attended had a 27 percent recidivism rate.

A 2003 New Zealand study led by Ian Labie entitled, “Paedophile programmes work,” found that 175 offenders who completed treatment while on parole had an average sexual recidivism rate of 5 per cent over four years. Two control groups without treatment attained rates of 21 and 25 percent.

A Colorado recidivism study in 2003 led by Kerry Lowden tracked 3338 sex offenders released from prison between 1993 and 2002. After three years in the community, 5.3 percent had been arrested for a new sex crime. Each month an inmate took part in the intensive therapeutic community for sex offenders behind the walls reduced by 1 percent his risk of committing a later sex crime. The report said these treatment programs “profoundly improve public safety as measured by officially recorded recidivism.”

Vermont corrections personnel tracked 195 adult male sex offenders over a six-year period ending in 2006. Those who completed sex offender treatment had a sex-offense recidivism rate of 5.4 percent, compared with 30 percent for people who never took that treatment.

Lorraine R. Reitzel and Joyce L. Carbonell published a meta-analysis in 2006 of nine studies of recidivism among juvenile sex offenders with a combined sample of 2,986 kids. The sex crime recidivism rate was 12.5 percent for young offenders tracked for an average of 59 months. The rate was 7.37 percent for kids who had taken a sex offender treatment program and 18.9 percent for those who had not.

A 2009 report by Robin Goldman of the Minnesota Department of Corrections compared two samples of 1,020 sex offenders released between 1999 and 2003. One group had taken an intensive sex offender treatment program and the other had not. The treated group had a 27 percent lower sex crime recidivism rate. The report concluded, “These findings are consistent with the growing body of research supporting the effectiveness of cognitive-behavioral treatment for sex offenders.”

Myth: Sex offenders have a 94 percent recidivism rate


Read on at corrections.com: http://www.corrections.com/news/article/24500-facts-and-fiction-about-sex-offenders

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