“You can’t cure these people.” “They have to be watched for the rest of their lives.” “It’s only a matter of time before they offend again.”
As with all stereotypes, there is a slight basis of truth in those quotes in that there are in fact some sex offenders for whom the above statements would be accurate. And if you believed that those statements applied broadly to most sex offenders than our current sex offender registry laws would make sense.
However, the overwhelming preponderance of research on sex offender recidivism over the last two decades tells a very different story. While certain identifiable sub-sets of sex offenders have a higher rate of recidivism, sex offenders, as a group, have one of the lowest recidivism rates of all offender groups in the criminal justice system.
Depending on the particular study, new sex crime recidivism typically ranges between 3% and 10%. Yet, research has shown that only 3% of the public believes that it is under 25% - and 72% of the public believes that the recidivism rate is over 50%.
The Recidivism Studies section of this website provides links to the most recognized studies on the issue over the past decade. On this page we want to focus on the two common misuses of statistics behind the “big lie” that most sexual offenders will reoffend - the foundational falsehood that is used to justify these laws.
1. Proponents of extreme sex offender laws distort the findings of reputable broad-based studies by lumping sexual recidivists in with those former sex offenders arrested for parole violations, non-sex related crimes (such as drug arrests) and registry offenses (such as failure to timely file a change of address) into their recidivism figures. That's how they get to higher percentages. However, they almost never qualify their numbers, leaving the intended misimpression that more former sex offenders are committing new sex crimes, which is simply not true. What these studies are picking up with these higher rates is the general societal problem of the revolving door penal system – not new sex offenses.
2. The more insidious misuse of sexual recidivism studies has been to take research that has focused on dangerous sub-sets of offenders and use those findings to make broad generalizations about sex offenders as a whole. One such study commonly abused is the June 1997 study entitled Recidivism rates among child molesters and rapists: A methodological analysis, by Prentky, Lee and Knight. This study focused on 265 rapists and child molesters who were civilly committed to the Massachusetts Treatment Center for Sexually Dangerous Persons because they were recidivists. The authors of this study cautioned against applying its findings to the entire sex offender population. Yet on numerous occasions the recidivism statistics for this narrow sub-set of high-risk offenders are cited as recidivism rates for all sex offenders. Even the U.S. Supreme Court made this error when it cited this very study in upholding the sex offender registry as constitutional.
These distortions of legitimate studies have helped to build the myth of high sex offender recidivism… something that most everyone believes to be true… except that it isn’t.