Council on Sex Offender Treatment Treatment of Sex Offenders - Recidivism

There is an inherent societal assumption that the sex offender recidivism rates are a fixed rate that will not change. This supposition is just not accurate. The rate of re-offense is likely to change over time due to social factors and the effectiveness of treatment strategies for managing this population (Hanson 2004). The recidivism rates fluctuate among different types of sex offenders and are related to specific characteristics of the sex offender and the offenses. After 15 years, 73% of sex offenders had not been charged with, or convicted of another sexual offense (Hanson 2004). Hanson observed the following factors associated with differentiating increased risk from those offenders whose five-year recidivism rate was 5% and from those whose recidivism was 25%. Higher recidivism rates were associated with these factors male victims, prior sexual offenses, and young age.

The public would be remiss in relying on recidivism rates in determining the “dangerousness” of a sex offender. Some sex offenders will inevitably commit new sexual offenses despite our best proactive efforts. Likewise, not all sex offenders who have high probability of re-offense will recidivate. Hanson and Bourgon (2004) in a study of 31,216 sex offenders found that, on average, the observed sexual recidivism rate was 13%, the violent non-sexual recidivism was 14%, and general recidivism was 36.9%. Research has shown that the recidivism rates for sex offenders are much lower than for the general criminal population. In a 1983 study by the Bureau of Justice Statistics of 108,580 non-sex offender criminals released from eleven (11) states, observed that 63% were rearrested for a non-sexual felony or serious misdemeanor within three (3) years of their release from prison and 41% were returned to prison.

Recidivism research outcomes are based on the definition of recidivism used. Caution should be used in placing sex offenders in exclusive categories. Sex offender typologies have been traditionally used to assess risk and assign levels of treatment and supervision (Heil, 2003). These typologies assume that rapists only sexually assault adults and child molesters only molest children. Heil, Ahlmeyer, and Simons in a 2003 study found that 52% of inmates who were known to sexually assault only adults admitted to sexually molesting children, and 78% of inmates who were known to molest children also admitted to sexually victimizing adults. Additionally, this study found that 64% of inmates known to victimize relative children admitted to victimizing non-relative children.

It should be noted that recidivism rates are based upon information gathered from an arrest, a conviction, or incarceration on a sexual offense. In other words, a sex offender can repeatedly re-offend before he or she is arrested and recidivates. Marshall and Barabaree (1990) compared official records with “unofficial” sources. They found that the number of subsequent offenses revealed through the unofficial sources were 2.4 times higher than the official records.

In general, the factors most strongly related to violent and sexual recidivism include having the characteristics of psychopathy as defined by a high PCL-R score (Hare, 1991, 1996, Rice 1997), a history of criminal behavior, and being young. Rice and Harris (1997) reported that the combination of psychopathy, measured by the PCL-R, and sexual deviancy, based on phallometric test results, resulted in the highest recidivism in their sample of sex offenders (Wakefield, 1998).

Characteristics of Recidivists (Center for Sex Offender Management)

  • Multiple victims
  • Psychopathy (Narcissism + Antisocial Personality = Psychopath. This is measured on the Hare Psychopathy Checklist. A score above 30 is considered a psychopath)
  • Stranger victims
  • Diverse victims
  • Juvenile sexual offenses
  • History of abuse or neglect
  • Multiple paraphilias
  • Unemployed
  • Substance Abuse
  • Antisocial lifestyle

Risk Factors and Warning Signs to Re-offense (Hanson, 2000)
The following are a few of the risk factors and warning signs exhibited by sex offenders prior to committing a new sexual offense:

  • The offender does not understand they are at risk.
  • The offender has little or no support systems.
  • The offender regards sex as an entitlement.
  • The offender has access to potential victims.
  • The offender is not compliant or cooperative with supervision or treatment.
  • The offender is hostile and angry.
  • The offender is using drugs or alcohol.
  • The offender is persistently in denial and blames the victim for the crime. In the 2000 Hanson and Harris study, of 208 sex offenders who committed a new sex crime, the first three listed above were the top three risk factors shown in the month before the sex offenders committed a new offense.
Last updated April 30, 2012