What do distinguished researchers do during COVID-19 lock downs? A huge meta-analysis of recidivism research for sexual offending that covers the span of 70 years, of course. Then, they look at the recidivism rates based on the changes in law and culture in the United States and Canada.
Recidivism Research at the ATSA Conference
Patrick Lussier, a professor of criminology at Universite Laval in Canada, presented a keynote speech at this year’s ATSA Conference based on two scientific publications this year looking at 70 years of recidivism research of sexual offenses in the US and Canada.
It was a super interesting talk made even better by their analysis of recidivism rates in relation to law changes and sexual offender registry adoption.
What do and don’t we know about sexual offense recidivism?
The first study by Lussier et al was published in the journal Criminal Justice Review.
They started with 3206 studies on recidivism which was pared down to 859 studies which fit the criteria for inclusion:
- Published after 1949
- Be in English or French
- Be a longitudinal study looking at sexual offenders
- Provide actual data on recidivism
One of the very interesting aspects of this study was the historical perspective taken on sexual offending and recidivism.
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Recidivism Research, Sexual Offending, and the Past
The earliest writings on sexual “deviance” come from the 19th century and the book by Kraftt-Ebing, published in 1886 is often cited. In this book, he described sexual deviance as a sexual behavior that is repetitive and persistent that was deemed odd, atypical and outside the norm.
From the 1950s to the 1970s, research on sexual offending began to focus on mental health problems of the offending person as well as the characteristics of people who offended.
Publications at the time indicated that there was an assumption that prison was not something that would deter a person who committed a sexual crime, and they would instead need individualized psychological interventions. Therapy tailored to their individual needs was the preference.
Studies from this era treated people who offended as specialists with major mental health problems related to sexual deviance.
Starting in the 1980s studies started to look at sexual offense recidivism and a shift happened in the field. A very influential report was published stating that nothing worked to deter recidivism.
This influenced a movement away from looking at those who offended as individuals and moved things towards a deterrent focused model. This eventually would lead to a very large increase in incarceration rates.
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The 1990’s to Today
In the 1990s sexual recidivism became a common indicator of risk which influenced laws and management of those convicted of sexual offending.
In the early 2000s sexual recidivism became a go-to statistic for evaluators and the courts.
Since the 2010s there has been criticism of the risk paradigm which suggests that people who have committed a sex crime have continuing propensities to commit future sex crimes.
This is supported by many studies that indicate low recidivism rates. The field has come to understand that the risk of reoffending is not a static thing, but changes based on the developmental stage of the person as well as life circumstances.
What do we know about sexual recidivism?
There is no such thing as a true base rate.
- Recidivism rates based on what the study is measuring, the length of the follow up period and the nature of the individuals in the sample population.
Recidivism rates vary based on the length of the follow up period
- Studies on recidivism can have a follow up period that varies from a few months to about 25 years.
Recidivism rates are associated with individual characteristics
- These can include the person’s criminal history, past sexual offending history, psychological, sexual, and social functioning.
Recidivism is not limited to sexual recidivism.
- Many people who commit a sexual crime are not specialists. Recidivism rates for sexual reoffending are low, the lowest across all types of crime.
Recidivism rates for adult offenders vary by age.
- Rates of crime peak in adolescence and decrease into adulthood.
The Specificity of Adolescent offenders.
- Adolescents who commit a sexual crime are not destined to become adult offenders.
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What is unresolved?
Current measures underestimate risk.
- How much? We all know that recidivism studies are based on known behavior, and we also know that many sex crimes are not found out. Therefore, we know that recidivism rates are likely an underestimate of actual recidivism. What we do not know is how big that underestimate is.
What is the accuracy of long-term estimates of sexual recidivism?
- Studies have gotten better in terms of having longer follow-up periods. However, these studies are based on older samples. Therefore, we do not know if this effect still holds true with more recent cohorts of offending individuals.
What is the effect of where you live?
- Is it possible that registry laws and laws that restrict residences are creating variations in sexual recidivism rates caused by crime displacement?
What is the effect of post release experiences on recidivism?
- Most studies simply look at whether or not a new offense was committed. They do not look at what the person’s environment was like. Were they on probation/parole? Were they in therapy? Did they have employment, housing, supportive people around them? Are low risk individuals actually low risk or are they being effectively managed in the community?
After reading this summary (and we didn’t cover everything) one might leave with more questions than answers.
Studies like this are important to highlight the weaknesses in the field and introduce new avenues of research for us to improve recidivism research, prediction, and treatment and policy making for individuals who have committed a sexual crime.
Reference: Lussier, P., Thivierge, S.C., Frechette, J. & Proulx, J. (2023). Sex Offender Recidivism: Some Lessons Learned from Over 70 Years of Research. Criminal Justice Review, doi:10.1177/0734016823157385journals.sagepub.com/home/cjr
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