Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Do child molesters have a high recidivism rate? Yes and No

Two contrasting arguments have been made about child sex offenders’ proclivity to reoffend. In public and media discourse, child sex offenders are often constructed as compulsive recidivists who are virtually certain to reoffend. For example, in a second reading speech to the Legislative Council of South Australia about the Criminal Law (Sentencing) (Mandatory Imprisonment of Child Sex Offenders) Amendment Bill, one Parliamentarian described child sex offenders as ‘beings of a subhuman category...[they are]...the least rehabilitatable people’ (Bressington 2010).

Conversely, in the criminological literature, the opposite is often posited—that child sex offenders have low rates of recidivism compared with other types of offenders (see eg McSherry & Keyzer 2009; Minnesota Department of Corrections 2007).

It is certainly the case that many studies of child sex offenders have found low levels of recidivism (Doren 1998). Measuring sexual recidivism is, however, a challenging task (see Falshaw, Friendship &Bates 2003 for a discussion) and it is important to be aware of the limitations of these studies. There are a number of key decisions that researchers make when measuring the recidivism of child sex offenders that can impact the findings of studies. Two key decisions are the definition of recidivism and the period of time over which recidivism is measured.

In most studies of general reoffending, recidivism is defined as a reconviction for a new offence. As sexual offences are often not reported (Abel et al. 1987; Bates, Saunders & Wilson 2007) and sexual offending against children has one of the highest rates of attrition of any offence (ie a relatively small proportion of cases progresses successfully through the criminal justice system; Eastwood, Kift & Grace 2006), studies of child sex offender recidivism that rely on reconvictions as a measure of recidivism provide only ‘a diluted measure of true reoffense rates’ (Doren 1998: 99).

As a result, some studies of child sex offender recidivism have defined recidivism as an arrest or charge (rather than a conviction) for a new sexual offence. This approach is also limited, but is likely to provide a more accurate measure of recidivism than reconvictions. As Doren (1998: 101) argues
although some portion of the people charged with a new sexual crime may [have] been both innocent of that charge and of any other recidivating sexually predatory acts, this portion would likely be far smaller than the number of re-offenders who are never caught and charged.
For a variety of reasons, recidivism studies usually follow up offenders over a short period, such as two or three years. While this is often necessary due to time and budget constraints, the longer a period over which recidivism in measured, the higher the rate of recidivism is likely to be (Tresidder, Homel & Payne 2009). While child sex offender studies often show low levels of recidivism, Salter (2003) argues that these studies obscure the reality that in the long term, rates of recidivism can be much higher (see also Bates, Saunders & Wilson 2007).

Studies that narrowly define recidivism and use short follow-up periods may therefore underestimate the rate of recidivism of child sex offenders (Moulden et al. 2009). Prentky et al.’s (cited in Doren 1998) study of recidivism rates among extrafamilial child sex offenders over a 25 year period used a new charge for a sex offence as the measure of recidivism. This study found that 52 percent of child sex offenders reoffended during the 25 year at-risk period. As Doren (1998: 101) argues, however, due to the limitations of recidivism studies on child sex offenders described above
 the 52% recidivist figure should be considered as a conservative approximation of the true base rate for sex offense recidivism in previously convicted child molesters...[it]...represents the lowest approximation for extrafamilial child molester sexual recidivism.
As described above, the category of ‘child sex offender’ includes diverse offenders with diverse motivations, including those who meet the diagnostic criteria for paedophilia. It is important to recognise that within the broad offender category of child sex offenders, some subcategories of offenders are likely to be at greater risk of reoffending than others. As Petrunik and Deutschmann (2008: 500) argue:
some sex offenders—notably, extrafamilial offenders with male victims who meet clinical criteria for paraphilias, such as paedophilia or exhibitionism—do offend with high frequency over long periods.
Research by Prentky et al. (cited in Doren 1998) described above, measured the recidivism of extrafamilial child sex offenders. As discussed in more detail below, research shows that extrafamilial child sex offenders perpetrate offences against many more victims than intrafamilial offenders and should therefore not be considered representative of all child sex offenders.

The empirical literature therefore suggests that both the media’s insistence that child sex offenders are compulsive recidivists and criminologists’ counterargument that child sex offenders are unlikely to reoffend may be somewhat skewed. While better quality evidence is required on the question of child sex offender recidivism, the existing research literature indicates that some subgroups of child sex offenders have higher rates of recidivism than others. For example, those who offend against children in their own families have access to only a small number of children, thereby limiting opportunities for recidivism to occur. The competing claims outlined at the opening of this section—ie that all child sex offenders will reoffend/that there is a low recidivism rate among child sex offenders—may not be as mutually exclusive as they appear. The research literature indicates that among a subset of child sex offenders—those who target male victims outside of their family—reoffending in the long term is likely and far more likely than for child sex offenders who target female and/or family member victims.


  1. Summary:

    Heterosexuals offenders are not likely to reoffend

    Offenders outside family are not likely to reoffend

    Offenders are either straight or not (most likely not) butstay within that group.

  2. just received this comment

    The post is correct in noting that the assessment of this is challenging. For those of us with a tad of training in scientific method, we can easily see the flaws in the current approaches to the subject. The need to create a standard for measurement becomes a limitation that excludes much, which is clear to any observer. Precisely this issue was a point of contention with R’ Reisman in the recent discussion. He adopts the opinion that the character is of no risk, since he was never seen chasing after a victim. The criteria are so far off from recognized reality that it is unfortunate that he renders decisions and psakim on the subject. There is a different reality here. The individual in question was obsessed with the subject of sexuality, as it pertains to children. I observed this first hand. He had also been cautioned about the matter, and did not do anything to distance himself when challenged. That reality alone is enough to see him as a risk.

    Studying recidivism, which is only known after a re-offense, is a stupid way to assess risk. It is like counting the cows in the barn after the door has been opened – not very informative.

    The measures for recidivism are also terribly flawed. Arrest, conviction, similarity to the previous convicted crime, and other such criteria may make the process of data collection convenient and standardized, but the baby has been thrown out with the bath water. I am long out of the scientific mode to propose better measures. I simply look to the nature of the crimes known to us. Do they suggest a single victim, perhaps a single event? Do they indicate a propensity to take positions of authority with minors, grooming, and being a serial molester? Granted, nothing scientific in this. But I look for the suggestion of a pattern. Sometimes I see it. Other times, not.

    One recent case involved a perpetrator who openly admitted his responsibility, went into intensive treatment, apologized (both he and the victim were probably not ready for that), paid for the victim’s therapy, and took on himself several forms of prishus. The emails that were blasted looking for more victims keep coming, and there were none. One askan told me of several other victims – turned out to be a hoax, with an angry fanatic who was paying young people to make false claims. I do not feel this perpetrator is a serial molester, nor a risk, considering the circumstances. He has a crime to pay for. But the witch hunt is similarly criminal, and nothing beyond someone acting out on hate and jealousy.

  3. First you say that the reality of his alleged obsession alone is enough to see him as a risk, but at the end of your post you say that you do not feel this perpetrator is a serial molester, nor a risk, considering the circumstances: which is it? From what I understood at the time of the trial, the individual we are discussing was not "obsessed" about the topic at all and he wasn't "warned" either. This person was tasked to deal with the growing problem of child on child abuse in the local community. And he only did this after being assigned to do so by the Principals of several Ashkenaz and Sephardic Yeshivot. The fact that the Rape Shield was used in this case for a 13-year-old Orthodox Jewish boy (a first in NY State's history) is enough to question what was really going on with this victim. The victim's Mother, who was her own son's School Social Worker, admitted that her son would go to other schools in the neighborhood and molest their students in the bathroom during class time. (His looking like and being just another student gained him unquestioned entry.) And the fact that the Judge also permitted the sordid details of this victim's relationship with one of his sexual partners to be exposed on the record looked like serious CYA on the Judge's part to prevent a major issue on appeal. I won't say if he is a risk or not because this whole thing needs more clarity. I would rather just rely on Rabbi Reisman, Shlita because he is a Gadol and he obviously has more of an understanding of the case than we know. I will certainly not ask this fellow to tutor, babysit, or teach Bar Mitsvah lessons.

  4. the article accounts for defining recidivism (partially) by treating formal accusations (even if not convicted) after the initial conviction, as a recidivism. and then multiplying by X. not too scientific, but somewhat practical.

    i find the article more valuable in that it finds that same sex recidivism is much more common that heterosexual recidivism. (and an interesting finding that family molestors are not likely to reoffend.)

  5. I think you missed the source of my post - It was a part of an article from Australia - the complete article is available by clicking the link at the top of the page

  6. Your allegations are rather strange. Absolutely no evidence is being presented concerning your claims.

    Please present evidence for them or I will simply delete your comment.

  7. I just removed the post - not only were the serious allegations were being made without evidence but it was clear that the name being used was not his but rather an identifiable person whose identity was apparently being stolen


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