Ten Myths about Sex Offenders

[This document is an attempt to summarize a research report published by the National Council on Institutions and Alternatives (NCIA). The March 2007 report was called “Towards More Effective Sex Offense Legislation.” This summary does not necessarily reflect the views of the NCIA itself.]

Recidivism is defined as repeat criminal behavior among offenders.

Of all crimes, sex offenders are widely believed to have the highest level of recidivism. However, treatment professionals and criminologists have known for some time that once sex offenders are caught, only a small minority of them will commit another sex crime. Although some pedophiles, before they are caught, have many victims, most have a single victim in or about their own families.

We all hope for the day when we can see fewer sex offenses and particularly fewer juvenile victims of such crimes. But so long as what we think we know about these types of crimes is based on myths and fear rather than facts, that day will never come. There are several myths that are widely believed that need to be debunked.

In recent years social scientists and criminologists have combed through an immense accumulation of data from hundreds of studies which have tracked tens of thousands of individual sex offenders for long periods of time, some even for decades.

By 1994, 670 studies of sex offenders had been done, and by the end of 2005 well over 700. Many of these studies have been systematized through a methodology called meta-analysis. The resulting data reveal that many common myths about sex offenders are simply false. We outline here some of them.

MYTH #1: “SEX OFFENDERS WILL ALWAYS KEEP OFFENDING.”

Recently the Bureau of Justice Statistics published a study which tracked 9,700 sex offenders for three years, 2001-2004. Their findings concluded:

  • Only 5.3% of these people imprisoned for sex crimes were re-arrested for a subsequent sex offense.
  • Where a child was involved, the re-arrest rate dropped to 3.3%.
  • Between two adults, the sexual re-offense rate was 2.2%.

A more multifaceted meta-analysis was done in 2004 by the office of Canada’s Solicitor General, Karl Hanson. This analysis involved 95 studies tracking 31,000 sex offenders. These studies had an average follow-up period of 5 years and found:

  • The recidivism rate for once-caught pedophiles was 12.7%.
  • The overall once caught recidivism rate (includes adult victims) was 13.7%.

Contrary to widespread public opinion, once-caught sex offenders have a very low recidivism rate. With or without treatment, more than 87% of the once-caught do not commit another sex crime. With treatment, the likelihood of re-offending is even lower.

In contrast, according to the 2004 U.S. Department of Justice Bureau of Justice Statistics study, 69% of all other types of criminals go back to prison, and they do so within five years. Over a longer period of time, other FBI statistics show, about 74% of all other types of offenders return to prison.

When that figure is compared to only 2% to 13%, the recidivism rate for sex offenders in reality is only a tiny fraction of what it is for other types of crime. This is not what the public believes and certainly not what they have heard. As the tracking of tens of thousands clearly attest, most people learn from their mistakes,and sex offenders are no exception. Just getting caught changes the behavior of most individuals.

MYTH #2: “TREATMENT DOESN’T MAKE ANY DIFFERENCE.”

The public has been told for years that treatment doesn’t work, that “for sex offenders nothing works,” but here too a myriad of major studies indicates otherwise:

  • The Campbell Collaboration analysis of 22,000 individuals found that treatment reduced recidivism by 37%.
  • Canada’s Karl Hanson’s 2000 analysis found a reduction of 41%.
  • Oshkosh Correctional’s meta-analysis from 79 separate studies of over 11,000 sex offenders found that people who participated in treatment programs had a 59% re-arrest reduction.
  • According to Alexander’s 1998 study, “Men arrested for having sex with children are usually overcome with shame and remorse and they want to stop. Since 1943 those who were treated in jails, hospitals and outpatient clinics found their way back to prison at a rate that was approximately one-third of those who had no treatment.”
  • By 2005, most all preventative programs showed that re-arrest rates were being reduced by greater than half. With some of the latest deep aversion and victim empathy regimens, reductions were reported as high as 91%.
  • There is now a credible concurrence that “treatment works” and that new programs are becoming increasingly more successful.

MYTH #3: “THE GREATEST THREAT TO OUR CHILDREN COMES FROM STRANGERS.”

  • According to the most recent major study by the Bureau of Justice Statistics (2004), where 9,700 sex offenders were tracked, only 7% of such crimes against children were perpetrated by strangers.
  • The majority (93%) of molestations of children are not committed by strangers but by people who are known and trusted within or about the family.
  • Throughout the last decade, other arrest studies have found similar results. Most sex offenses are committed by a family member or guardian/family member (often some parental substitute).
  • It may be a trusted uncle, father, stepfather, mother, family friend,  teacher, coach, or  priest; but in almost all cases, the culprit is not a stranger.

If we keep in mind that 93% of the culprits are family or known to the family and that 87% of sex offenders who are caught do not re-offend, then it would seem that most registries or residency restrictions or tracking of individuals will be very close to a waste of time. Such procedures will not make our communities any safer. In fact, there’s evidence such measures will do the opposite.

MYTH #4: “BANNING SEX OFFENDERS FROM PLACES WHERE CHILDREN CONGREGATE WILL SIGNIFICANTLY PROTECT OUR CHILDREN.”

To claim school yards, daycare centers, and other places where children congregate need legislation or Global Positioning Satellite (GPS) geo-fences to keep sex offenders away may sound sensible, but, again, the facts do not fit the reality.

The fact is that most sex offenses take place in or near one’s home and that only 7% involve strangers. Furthermore, only a tiny percentage of sex offenders have any history of kidnapping or molesting children unknown to them.

Perhaps among the safest places for children to be are those where they are together in numbers. School personnel are paying more attention than ever before, and older kids are keeping more of a watchful eye. People –even kids– look out for each other in public places.

Finally, making it difficult for sex offenders to find places to reside means that they will have a much harder time re-integrating themselves into society, which is what most of them want to do.

MYTH #5: “TOUGHER LEGISLATION IS THE ONLY SOLUTION.”

In the U.S., our judges are learned and principled and render few decisions without due diligence. Very stiff punishments for child murderers are certainly called for, but punishment is just only when it is proportioned to the severity of the crime. Such judgments should remain in the courts, subject to very specific deliberations; they should not be rendered in the legislatures, where careful deliberation is impossible.

If legislation is based on the false premise that recidivism is inevitable rather than rare, and if it blurs the line between sex offense and murder, then it will result in laws that promote public shaming and permanent exclusion. These laws presume and promote lifelong guilt, ruling out all hope of change. Thus they not only clearly violate the Constitution, but they actually encourage more of the very crimes we are trying to reduce.

If we truly want fewer victims, we should adopt a more holistic approach to reintegrating sex offenders back into society. The focus should shift from more and harsher punishment to the funding of good treatment programs. Although such a shift may have little current appeal among the public today, treatment is the only sure way that we will see fewer victims of these types of crime.

Given all the degrees that sexual offenses can take, one type of sentence does not fit all. What do you do with a 17-year-old who had sex with a 15-year-old? What do you do if he was 19? What if it was consensual? Does he get registered for a lifetime as a sex offender? What about an 8-year-old who plays doctor? What if he’s 14? The fact is that nowadays even juvenile sex offenders are being branded for life.

MYTH #6: “THE ONLY WAY TO DEAL WITH THEM IS PUT THEM BEHIND BARS.”

If our goal were to mass produce criminals, we couldn’t be doing a better job. Without treatment programs, our prisons have become huge breweries, woefully turning out more of the same product, each generation more hardened and more dangerous than the last. If ever we’re to make our societies more just and our communities more secure, our goal must be to make some serious changes and not just keep doing more of the same.

If we got more serious about funding preventative programs, then our courts could establish good treatment programs that would start from the first day of a criminal’s first conviction. The result would be many fewer victims of all sorts of crimes, including sexual abuse of children.

Presently there is little or no rehabilitation taking place in our prisons; there is just more and more fruitless incarceration. We need to wake up about what we are brewing and start legislating intelligently so that offenders can really get rehabilitated and contribute constructively to society.

MYTH #7: “MANDATORY MINIMUM SENTENCES ARE EFFECTIVE AND WILL HELP PROTECT SOCIETY.”

Although the public may believe that extremely stiff, mandatory minimum sentences and lock’em up strategies send a message that deters crime, history tells another story.

Criminologists point out that such laws, even when publicized, are not all that effective. Often, in the heat of actual violence, perpetrators do not even think about consequences. At such moments of blinding rage and confusion, there are generally few thoughts of penalties or sentences, severe or otherwise.

Conversely, we do know that extremely harsh mandatory sentences have prompted some of the very types of crime they are intended to stem. When a perpetrator is aware of particularly dire consequences if he’s caught, that fear can lead him to cause even greater harm for the victim. A person facing a stiff sentence like a mandatory 25 years to life, or even a death sentence, may decide his chances are better if he eliminates the victim and any possible witness. What might have been a lesser crime then often gets even worse.

It may seem a paradox, but the stiffer the consequences, the more Jessicas, Megans and Polly Klaases will likely be the result. It is understandable that with such terrible murders come calls for tougher punishments. However, the problem with legislation launched in anger is that it invariably ends up punishing not only those who deserve punishment but also those who do not.

MYTH #8: “SEX OFFENDER REGISTRIES ARE NECESSARY TO PROTECT SOCIETY.”

Posting names, addresses and photographs on a sex offender registry is not only a risk to those on the list, but it can also lead to unintended, inappropriate, and destructive consequences for the whole community.

Registries tend to treat all sex offenders the same way, without reference to the severity of their offenses, their responsiveness to treatment, or current assessment of the risk they pose. It is seen by some as an opportunity to harass the offenders and even worse.

While it is certainly in order to professionally monitor and discipline sex offenders for various prudent periods, we must also try to be fair about how offenders are handled. Permanently branding them on registries or making targets of them with conspicuous tracking devices will only aggravate the problems, not solve them. Unfortunately, when a partially informed public is allowed and encouraged to become watchdogs, sex offenders face greater risk of confrontations by the public, due mainly to anger and hostility. Some people even feel that they have a warrant to harass offenders and make life miserable for them.

Since the start of community notification, there has been a growing number of serious beatings, not only of sex offenders but sometimes of their family members or people with whom they live. Some confrontations have led to tragedies. Two sex offenders were murdered in Maine. In this case, the victims were no longer likely threats; one was simply a young man who at 17 had a 15-year-old girlfriend. Had their names, addresses, and photographs not been on the state’s registry, had the two been simply monitored by probation and treatment professionals, they would not have been spotlighted by some zealot who apparently thought he was doing the work of God.

A little wall sign at one of NCIA’s clinics gets a lot of applause from those in treatment:

“Permanent brandings may be all right for cattle,
but they shouldn’t be for people.”

If we want to be humane, that sign is correct. If we want former offenders to regain their health and not be always on the run, we should not set them up to be stalked. Vengeful prescriptions that call only for more and more punishment will not produce a cure. Since so few of the once-caught remain a threat, there are smarter approaches than alarming communities with registries and turning all levels of former offenders over to the general public for surveillance.

MYTH #9: “TRACKING DEVICES ARE A PRACTICAL AND JUST MEANS FOR KEEPING SEX OFFENDERS UNDER SURVEILLANCE.”

If we want fewer victims of sexual offenses, the primary goal should be to reintegrate former offenders peacefully back into society as law-abiding citizens. This cannot be done if we keep them in fear and on the run. Tracking devices that have to be worn conspicuously only make targets of the people we are trying to reintegrate into society.

When offenders are made to wear GPS bracelets, with one worn on the ankle and another on the wrist, they are big, bulky, and hard to keep hidden. For anyone who has to wear them, they are a scarlet letter, a crippling stigma of shame.

If we want to keep sex-offenders on track, turning them into prey on registries or spotlighting them with bulky tracking bracelets on both arm and leg is not the answer. Making a dart board of any human being is clearly more an act of revenge than an aid in stemming crime. The vigilante mentality is still strong in many places: one man on a sex offender registry found the severed head of his pet dog on the front porch of his house.

Sadly, the new legislation being created is aimed more at increasing punishment and appeasing the public than it is at actually making our communities safer. When the public is as misinformed and angry as they are, it is a perilous mistake to give them the addresses and photographs of all sex offenders, particularly without the background of their crimes or updated individual assessments of risk.

The monitoring of sex offenders will always be better handled by knowledgeable treatment professionals carefully coordinating their efforts with police and parole officers than by the varied mercies of an angry, upset, and partially informed populace. If GPS devices need to be used, there now exist cell phones with GPS chips, which not only give the person’s precise location but allow immediate voice contact with the person.

Unless we want to go back two centuries to the ghoulish practices of Salem, we should not get caught up in the intoxication of revenge that only fuels harassment and witch-hunts.

MYTH #10: “THE EXPERTS SAY THAT STRONG, REPRESSIVE MEASURES ARE NECESSARY TO KEEP SEX OFFENDERS FROM RE-OFFENDING.”

Below are some revealing quotes from various experts and authors who have studied sex offender legislation and treatment.

  • Tom Masters, Program Director, Correctional Treatment Services at Oregon State Hospital:

    Unfortunately a lot of crime legislation is a function of politics and does not lead to rehabilitation or community safety.

  • Margaret Love, former Justice Department Pardon Attorney, writes:

    Mean spirited vengeful legislation is only an incitement to vigilante injustice masquerading as a responsible public safety measure.

  • In the June, 2006, issue of National Wildlife, Richard Law summarizes some studies on how we in America have become so overcome by fear. Here are some excerpts:

    Fear is felt nearly intensely in suburban Overland Park, Kansas, as it is in urban Philadelphia. One suburban father told me, “I want to know where my kid is 24 hours a day, seven days a week. I want to know where that kid is. Which hours. Which square foot. Which telephone number.

    As a parent, I have felt that fear but consider the facts:

    • The number of abductions by strangers has been falling for years.
    • Most abductors are family members.
    • U.S. children are safer now than they have been since 1975. According to the 2005 Duke University Child Well Being Index, violent victimization of children has dropped by more than 38 percent.
    • A 1991 study found that in 1990, the radius within which children were allowed to roam on their own from home had shrunk to a ninth of what it had been in 1970.
    • What has increased is round-the-clock news coverage of a few tragedies, conditioning families to live in fear.
  • In her book, Harmful to Minors: The Perils of Protecting Children from Sex (University of Minnesota Press, 2002), author Judith Levine wrote:

    All this rational talk may mean nothing to a parent. Out of 45 million, only nine children are raped and murdered: slim odds, sure, but if it happens to your baby, who cares about the statistics? Still, most parents manage to put irrational fears in perspective. Why, in spite of all information to the contrary, do Americans insist on believing that pedophiles are a major peril to their children?

    What do people fear so formidably? Our culture fears the pedophile, say some social critics, not because he is a deviant, but because he is ordinary. And I don’t mean because he is the ice-cream man or Father Patrick. No, we fear him because he is us.

  • In his study The Culture of Child Molesting, the literary critic James Kincaid traced this terror back to the middle of the nineteenth century. Then, he said, Anglo-American culture conjured childhood innocence, defining it as a desire-less subjectivity, at the same time as it constructed a new ideal of the sexually desirable object. The two had identical attributes –softness, cuteness, docility, passivity– and this simultaneous cultural invention has presented us with a wicked psychosocial problem ever since. We relish our erotic attraction to children, says Kincaid (witness the child beauty pageants in which Jon Benet Ramsey was entered). But we also find that attraction abhorrent (witness the public shock and disgust at Jon Bonet’s “sexualization” in those pageants). So we project that eroticized desire outward, creating a monster to hate, hunt down and punish.
  • In the June 2, 2006, San Francisco Chronicle Mark Martin, Peter Firmrite, and Greg Lucas wrote an article that made the following points:
    • Residency prohibitions on sex offenders have become increasingly popular across the country, despite any statistical evidence that they limit assaults on children. At least 18 states have some restrictions on where parolees live.
    • Niki Delson, a licensed clinical social worker who has worked for 30 years with sex offenders and their victims and who is chairwoman of the California Coalition on Sexual Offending, says, “Where someone lives has no relation to the commission of a crime.” She calls residency requirements “a smoke screen that does little to help children.”

    Jill Levenson, a professor at Lynn University says: “Restricting where parolees live can actually do more harm than good. Such requirements tend to push them out of metropolitan areas where they are further away from job opportunities, families, treatment options, and all the things we know that will reduce recidivism.

    • A review of residence restrictions Levenson published noted that both Minnesota and Colorado prison officials studied patterns of sex offenders on parole and found no correlation between new offenses the parolees committed and where they lived. Neither state adopted residency requirements.
  • Corwin  Ritchie, Executive Director at the Iowa County Attorney’s Association, stated:

In 2002, Iowa enacted a law that prohibits sex offenders from living within 2,000 feet of a school or daycare center. The law has overburdened law enforcement, has concentrated sex offenders in areas where they are allowed to live, and has led to an increase in the number of sex offenders who have stopped registering with local authorities and gone missing.

I defy anyone to try and convince me, scientifically or logically, that those requirements have any affect at all. It makes great sense politically, but has no affect whatsoever on public safety.

  • James Poniewozik, staff writer for Time Magazine, wrote on October 16, 2006:

    Strangers make up 7% of child molesters; the vast majority are family members. But you wouldn’t know it from watching TV. When stranger predators are everywhere on TV, it suggests that they are everywhere in the real world: in your school yard, roaming your street, and –especially– climbing the DSL line into your kids’ bedrooms like an ivied trellis.

  • Robert Freeman-Longo, former director of the Safer Society, stated:

    You ban somebody from the community, he has no friends, he feels bad about himself, and you reinforce the very problems that contribute to sex abuse behavior in the first place. You make him a worse sex offender.

CONCLUSION

Knowing of NCIA’s work and having seen this report, author/researcher Henry Scammell volunteered the following:

The public has been misled into believing that sex offenders are around every corner and that even those who have been caught will go on to offend forever. The first fear is irrational and the second is less true of sex offenses than of virtually any other type of crime. The only public policies with any hope of success are those based on reliable research instead of fears and on scientific facts rather than easy political fixes fed by misconceptions.

Fear is a poor basis for public policy. It raises a nearly un-breachable barrier to the truth. And a policy that is based on the realities of low recidivism, of responsiveness to treatment, and of the relationship between the vast majority of offenders and their victims offers the only hope for reducing or eliminating one of our society’s saddest and most challenging problems.

If we keep in mind the reality that once a sex offender is caught, most of the problem ceases and that preventative programs can cure almost all the rest of the once caught, then clearly treatment must be the goal. When you hear a politician calling for tougher sentences and not backing it up with dollars for treatment programs, then he is looking for votes, not solutions.

The public’s fear would not be so intense today if it were not being propelled by all the exaggerated and often totally false recidivism claims. There have been too many “scarathons” that claim that the bogeyman has become much larger than he really is. Even though the public imagines the molester-kidnapper is everywhere, that simply is not the case.

Because of all the clamor and panic, what criminologists and treatment scholars have learned to date has plainly not been heard by the public. Sadly, what has been spawned politically so far, such as sex registries and residency restrictions, are measures that will do nothing to make our communities safer but in fact will do more harm.

If we want fewer sex offenders and fewer victims of these types of crime, we have got to be more levelheaded. We should see to it that the public and our legislators inform themselves better about these myths and learn to distinguish the reality from the many distorted ideas that are abroad.