It is a widespread misconception that sex offenders commit additional sex crimes at alarmingly high rates. This myth has had tremendous impact on court decisions and policy making.
The use of dubious statistics in major cases like Smith v. Doe and McKune v. Lile has created a dangerous precedent with lasting effects. In their article, “Frightening and High”: The Supreme Court’s Crucial Mistake About Sex Crime Statistics, Ira Mark Ellman and Tara Ellman describe the source of these exaggerated claims.
The phrase “frightening and high”—describing the recidivism rate for sex offenders—was used in both cases and has been used in almost 100 judicial opinions since. Proliferation of this phrase as justification for further punitive policies aimed at sex offenders demonstrates the influence these cases have had in propagating the myth of high recidivism rates.
The “statistic” quoted to justify claims of “frightening and high” recidivism rates has been traced back to a 1986 article from Psychology Today—a mass market publication, not a peer reviewed journal. Ellman and Ellman describe the “statistic” and its source:
That article has this sentence: “Most untreated sex offenders released from prison go on to commit more offenses– indeed, as many as 80% do.” But the sentence is a bare assertion: the article contains no supporting reference for it. Nor does its author appear to have the scientific credentials that would qualify him to testify at trial as an expert on recidivism. He is a counselor, not a scholar of sex crimes or re-offense rates, and the cited article is not about recidivism statistics. It’s about a counseling program for sex offenders he then ran in an Oregon prison. His unsupported assertion about the recidivism rate for untreated sex offenders was offered to contrast with his equally unsupported assertion about the lower recidivism rate for those who complete his program.
While the courts have utilized faulty information to justify the existence of punitive policies, it can be difficult to produce recidivism studies that consider every factor possible. Due to the umbrella nature of the sex offender registry in many states, it can be difficult to separate high risk offenders from their low risk counterparts—it seems obvious they would reoffend at different rates. Also, a successful study must differentiate between re-arrest (for a parole/probation violation, a non-sex crime, or ultimately not charged), re-offense (committing a new sex crime), and re-conviction (getting convicted for a new crime, sexual or non-sexual). The period since release from prison is important as well as many studies have shown sex offenders who have been offense-free for 15 years or more are less likely to commit new crimes.
In 2003 the U. S. Department of Justice released a study on sex offender recidivism: Recidivism of Sex Offenders Released from Prison in 1994. The study tracked 9,691 sex offenders released from prison in 1994 for a period of 3 years. Several factors were considered and the data are broken down into several categories, but the most basic statistics state that 5.3% of the sex offenders in the study were arrested for a new sex crime within 3 years of their release from prison and 3.5% were convicted for a new sex crime within 3 years. (A far cry from a “frightening and high” rate of 80%.)
In 2012, the State of Connecticut Office of Policy and Management put out a study: Recidivism Among Sex Offenders in Connecticut. It tracked 14,398 men released from prison in Connecticut for five years. Those tracked were divided into several groups based on offense and incarceration history. 746 of the men had served a prison sentence for a sex-related offense before being released in 2005. Over the next 5 years, 3.6% were arrested and charged for a new sex crime, 2.7% were convicted for a new sex offense, and 1.7% were returned to prison to serve a sentence for a new sex crime. (Certainly not even close to 80%.)
In 2005, P. Karl Hanson and Kelly E. Morton-Bourgon published a meta-analysis of sex offender recidivism studies: The Characteristics of Persistent Sexual Offenders: A Meta-Analysis of Recidivism Studies. This meta-analysis covers 82 recidivism studies that tracked 29,450 sex offenders. Per their findings, 13.7% sex offenders were arrested for a new sex offense and 36.2% recidivated with another type of offense. They conclude that sex offenders with antisocial inclinations are more likely to recidivate, just like any other type of convicted felon.
The reality is, sex offenders have one of the lowest recidivism rates of any category of felon. Perpetuation of the high recidivism rate myth by the media is irresponsible and its utilization by those in power to pass punitive policies is reprehensible.