Arkansas Crime Information Center (link)
Sex Offenders and Recidivism
One of the major tenets of sex offender registration and notification laws is the idea that sex offenders are more likely to recidivate than other types of offenders. This is also one of the biggest myths about sex offenders according to the Center for Sex Offender Management (2001). From a review of sex offender recidivism studies, Sample (2001, 106) argued that because of “methodological difficulties, differences in sample size, and variability in follow-up lengths, most studies report inconsistent levels of reoffending among sexual offenders.”
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. They found that the majority of the offenders (97%) were male, white (75.4%), between the ages of 30 and 69, and the majority of the offenders were from Arkansas (54.9%). The average offender committed 1.55 sex offenses and the majority of the offenders (53.3%) were charged with 1st Degree Sexual Abuse. 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).
In conclusion to her multifaceted study on sex offender registration and notification laws, Sample wrote:
Popular conceptions of sex offending influence public officials’ reactions to the problem. Officials’ reactions [to the public] lead to the passage of the statutes that law enforcement personnel use to enact arrest charges. The arrest statistics, themselves a product of the social construction of sex offending, can be used to assess the extent to which legislative intent has been realized and the accuracy of popular perceptions of the problem. Information regarding the sex offending arrests is then used to reaffirm or reformulate popular perceptions of the problem (2001, 28).
This quotation shows the interrelatedness of these entities, media, policy makers, and arrest data, and how they affect one another.
Bynum (2001) noted that sex offender recidivism has been measured in three ways: Subsequent arrest, subsequent conviction, and subsequent incarceration. Because of this, reliance on “measures of recidivism as reflected through official criminal justice system data obviously omit offenses that are not cleared through an arrest or that are never reported to the police”(Bynum 2001, 2). From his examination of the literature, Bynum (2001, 8) concluded that studies on “sex offender recidivism vary widely in the quality and rigor of the research design, the sample of sex offenders and behaviors included in the study, the length of follow-up and the criteria for success of failure.” Further, due to “these differences, there is often a perceived lack of consistency across studies of sex offender recidivism.”
Because of the conceptual problems outlined by both Bynum and Sample, the literature is inconclusive as to the magnitude of recidivism for sex offenders. 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.
DISCUSSION AND CONCLUSIONS
Sex offender registration and notification policies are a relatively recent development in the criminal justice system. As such, there has been neither a great deal of methodological development nor many empirical findings. This research has attempted to overcome this lack of research by empirically exploring the effect of sex offender registration and notification laws on the number of sex offenses, measured by rape, committed over time across the United States. Utilizing time series analysis (ARIMA), we examined the incidence of rape in a sample of 10 states to see if the sex offender laws had any noticeable influence on sex offenses.
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.
These findings beg the question of what is occurring concerning the relationship between sex offender registration and notification and subsequent sex offending. It is possible, as Sample’s (2001) research indicated, that this was knee jerk legislation based simply on keeping the constituency happy. If that is true, sex offender registration and notification laws are failed legislation. As discussed above, there are alternative explanations of what could be occurring. These include a deterrent nature to these laws, a heightening of police awareness, both, or the rape counts simply decreased at the same time as the introduction of the law and therefore our model could be misspecified (i.e. confounded). We offer several suggestions of how these differing explanations may be producing the findings of this research.
First, sex offender registration and notification laws are based on the assumption that sex offenders are more likely to recidivate than other offenders. The research on the validity of this assertion is very mixed. While the nature of our data does not permit us to comment one way or the other in this area, sex offenders are assumed to be an identified group. As such, the rationale behind sex offender laws would assume that a majority of the offenses committed within the confines of any year would actually be sex offenders who are re-offending. A potential alternative assumption is that in those states with increases (roughly half of the states examined here), it would be expected that these offenders would be first time offenders or offenders who have never been caught before. This is supported by Walker and McLarty (2000) who found that 73% of sex offenders in their study committed a sex offense as their first offense. If this is the case, it would be expected that sex offender registration and notification is not able to control this population because a substantial number of them are committing sex offenses as their first offense. Hence, there is no name on the register and no way to inform the community.