- Because sex offender laws are relatively new, research examining the efficacy of these laws is limited. Using time series analysis, this study examines sex offender registration and notification laws in the United States. The goal of this study was to examine the general deterrent nature of these laws on the number of sex offenses committed as measured by the increase of decrease in the number of rapes. Hanson and Bussiere (1998) conducted a meta-analysis of studies on sex offender recidivism. From an international sample of 87 research projects (representing 28,972 sex offenders), the average recidivism rate for sex offenses was only 13.4%, while the average recidivism rate for any offense was 36.3%. Findings on offender characteristics showed that only age and marital status predicted sex offense recidivism. This was particularly true if an offender had prior sexual offenses, victimized strangers, had an extrafamilial victim, began offending at an early age, had a male victim, or had engaged in diverse sexual crimes. General recidivists (sex offenders who committed new crimes that are non-sexual in nature) were those most likely to have used force against their victims and less likely to have chosen child victims. Hanson and Bussiere (1998, 357) argued that their findings “contradict the popular view that sexual offenders inevitably reoffend. . . even in studies with thorough searches and long follow-up periods the recidivism rate almost never exceeded 40%.”
- Walker and McLarty (2000) examined the characteristics of sex offenders on the Arkansas sex offender registry from 1997 to 1999; from this, they were able to describe the characteristics of offenders in the Arkansas’ registry. . . . Most importantly, in relation to recidivism, sex offenders were predominantly first time offenders (73% of sample). This could indicate that this was the sex offender’s first time offending or that this was the offender’s first offense that resulted in arrest.
- Sample (2001) explored the social construction of sex offenders and sex offender registration laws in Illinois. She did this by incorporating a three-pronged analysis. Sample performed a content analysis of three newspapers, interviewed policy makers, and analyzed police arrest records in an effort to compare common media and policy maker beliefs.
- Between 1991 and 1998, Sample (2001, 34) noted a 128% increase in articles pertaining to sex offenders and offending. From the articles examined, Sample (2001, 66) found that sex offenders were portrayed as men in their mid-thirties, there was a lack of information on the race and social class of the offender, offenders were compulsive, the sex crimes themselves appeared to be changing (child pornography, pedophilia, and cyberporn), and the victims were portrayed as the innocent, the aged, and the infirm. The increase in these types of articles gives the public the impression of a growing sex offender problem (Sample, 2001, 69).
- Sample then observed the relationship between media driven perceptions and the policy making process. Sample interviewed 35 legislators from Illinois. Of these 35 policy makers, only four were confident that sex offender registration and notification laws were effective; however, nearly all of the sample agreed “that current sex offender legislation . . . successfully addressed the public’s demand for action”(Sample 2001, 96). For these public officials, “the media indirectly influenced the enactment of sex offender legislation by affecting the public’s perceptions” and the media directly influenced policy making because the politicians “freely admit that the media serve as their major source of information”(Sample 2001, 99).
- Sample (2001) then examined aggregate data sources to examine further the relationship between media accounts and policy maker legislation. She found that from 1990 to 1997, sex offenders represented only 1.2% of the total criminal charges in Illinois, and the number of sex offenses remained stable over this time period. The typical offender illustrated in the data was male, of no discernable race, and similar in age to other types of offenders. Most importantly, sex offenders did not re-offend at a higher rate than other types of offenders, which goes against the commonly held perceptions of the public.
- When examining sex offenders who committed only sex offenses, Sample (2001) found that the majority of crimes included adult victims, not adolescent victims as popularly portrayed in the media. More importantly, sex offenders of any type (rapists, pedophiles, etc.) had greater than a 6% re-arrest rate within 5 years of the same offense but most sex offenders were not re-arrested for a sex offense. Finally, sex offenders “with child victims had lower rates of re-arrest for any sex crime than those who victimized adults, the one exception being child pornographers”(2001, 162).
- Research seems to indicate that sex offenders are not any more likely to recidivate than other types of offenders. It is important to note the homogeneity between sex offender recidivism and other offender type recidivism. The perception that sex offenders pose a higher risk of recidivism than other types of offenders formed the backdrop of the movement for sex offender registration and notification legislation. With this fact in mind, the next section examines studies that have been conducted on the effectiveness of registration and notification laws themselves.
- The key finding of this research is that the passage of sex offender registration and notification laws have had no systematic influence on the number of rapes committed in these states as a whole. Most of the states in our sample (five of ten) showed no significant differences (increase or decrease) in the average number of rapes committed before and after the sex offender laws. These non-significant findings masked the fact that roughly half of these non-significant changes were actually increases in the average incidence of rape within a given state. Of the states (four of the ten states) that did indicate statistically significant findings, three of these states experienced a decrease in the number of rapes after the implementation of the laws. The fourth state, however, actually illustrated a steep, statistically significant increase in the number of rapes committed.