Some Recent Research on Sex Offenders and Society’s Responses to Them

Compiled from Criminological Highlights by Anthony N. Doob and Rosemary Gartner (Universirty of Toronto)

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Table of contents:

  1. Introduction
  2. The Nature of Sex Offending
  3. Societal Reactions to Sex Offenders
  4. Treatment of Sex Offenders
  5. Highlights


An Overview of Criminological Highlights Summaries of Research on Sex Offenders. Page numbers for the attached Criminological Highlights summaries are on the bottom right of each page.

The following is a very condensed summary of the Criminological Highlights summaries that follow. We strongly urge readers to read the summaries in addition to (or instead of) our summaries of this literature.

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The Nature of Sex Offending

Many people appear to believe that “once a sex offender, always a sex offender.” Operationally, this would suggest that the once people are identified as sex offenders and convicted of a sex offence, they would be very likely to commit more sex offences in the future.

The data do not support this belief. Sex offender recidivism rates are not generally higher than recidivism rates of other offenders. These data hold true for both adults (pages 4-6) and youths (page 7). Generally speaking, it would seem that if sex offenders do re-offend, their offences are not likely to be a sex offence. They are not a specialized group of offenders  (page 8-9).

On a related issue, a recent study suggests that the assumption that users of child pornography are likely to commit ‘contact offences’ with children is not supported by the data (page 10).
One study (page 11) suggests that sex offending is best understood as a transitory phase in an offender’s life.

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Societal Reactions to Sex Offenders

The search for simple solutions to complex problems is quite evident in the area of society’s response to sex offenders. Based partially on the notion that a “sex offender” is a special type of dangerous offender who is very likely to reoffend, one thing that some jurisdictions have done is to try to keep track of and notify the community of the whereabouts of sex offenders. These approaches are based, in part, on the notion that sex offenders have a high likelihood of re-offending.

In order for such policies to be effective tools to reduce sex offending, those responsible for sex offences would have to be on these registries and/or subject to community notification. However, the data suggest that many people who have been described as being serious sex offenders would not have been eligible for registration/ notification before the offence that led to their conviction. In part this is due to the fact that they might be first offenders and/or because their offences were not ‘predatory-stranger’ crimes. Many victims of sex offenders are related to their offender; in many other cases there are pre-existing relationships with the offender (page 12). The idea behind registration/ notification is that people can take protective actions, though it is not clear what these actions would be, nor do these approaches take into consideration the problems that such policies can create (pages 13- 14).

Another problem with the registration/notification approach is that these programs do not necessarily identify sufficiently accurately those likely to reoffend (page 15). Not surprisingly, therefore, they do not seem to be effective in reducing re-offending (page 16-17). Furthermore, these programs may interfere with peaceful reintegration of sex offenders into society (page 18). Similarly, serious questions have been raised about the constant monitoring of sex offenders in the community (page 19).

One popular approach to sex offending is to restrict the places they can go or live. Once again, these approaches ignore what is known about sex offending (e.g., that many offenders are known to their victims). But in addition, these measures may be counter-productive in that they make it difficult for offenders (who have a low likelihood of re-offending in the first place) to be reintegrated into society (page 20-22). In some cases, these restrictions make it virtually impossible for a person to find a place to live (pages 23).

At times, society’s responses to sex offenders appear to be counter-productive. In 2010 there were about 3244 people found guilty of sexual assault or another sex offence in Canada. Depending on the criteria that are used for registration and/or notification, within a few years, in large dense cities, almost everyone would be living near a registered or monitored, or restricted sex offender. Notifying neighbours of the presence of a sex offender assumes that there is something that can or should be done to avoid victimization.

It is often suggested that those who are in prison for sex offences should serve “their whole sentences” rather than being released on some form of conditional release. This suggestion, of course, ignores the fact that most incarcerated sex offenders will, in fact, be released at some point and will return to their communities. Nevertheless, data from Correctional Service of Canada suggest that a disproportionate number of those serving penitentiary sentences for sex offences are detained past their ‘statutory release’ date or until the last day of their sentences.

This practice has led to suggestions that sex offenders be civilly committed after the end of their sentences in order to protect society. Some of the support for this practice seems to be fed by the view that sex offenders are insufficiently punished (page 24). More importantly, perhaps, data suggest that experts cannot agree, when assessing individual sex offence cases, who the dangerous sexual predators are (page 25).

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Treatment of Sex Offenders 

Treatment for sex offenders can be effective, though it would be wrong to conclude that any treatment will be effective. It appears that voluntary cognitive-behavioural treatments in the community have the highest rate of success (page 26). Furthermore, sex offenders released into the community after the end of their sentences can be effectively managed or treated with a program (developed and tested first in Canada) referred to as “Circles of Support and Accountability” (page 27-28).

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Volume 6, Number 6, October 2004: An analysis of data from ten samples of sentenced sex offenders demonstrates that most sexual offenders who have been apprehended and sentenced do not commit further sexual offences. 

Volume 5, Number 1, July 2002: Sex offenders are not reconvicted at the rate that many people think they are. Parole boards over-predict re-offending for these prisoners. The notion that certain groups of sex offenders are driven to commit additional sex offences on release is challenged by this study.

Volume 3, Number 3, July 2000: Most sex offenders placed on probation do not reoffend. In particular, those with stable employment histories who receive sex-offence treatment are less likely to reoffend than those without such characteristics.

Volume 9, Number 2, December 2007: Youths who commit sexual offences are not very likely to commit sex offences as young adults.

Volume 6, Number 3, March 2004: Sex offenders are not more likely than other types of lawbreakers to be re-arrested for a crime. In fact, the vast majority of them—if re-apprehended—are arrested for an offence that is not sexual in nature.

Volume 8, Number 3, November 2006: Compared to other groups of offenders, sex offenders are not a highly specialized group. They are no more likely to be “specialized” offenders than are other types of offenders (i.e., those who have committed violent, property or public order offences). 

Volume 12, Number 4, March 2012: It should not be assumed that users of child pornography either have committed ‘contact’ sexual offences in the past or are likely to do so in the future.

Volume 13, Number 2, February 2013: Sex offending typically represents a transitory phase in an offender’s life, not a life-defining event.

Volume 4, Number 1, May 2001: Community notification laws appear to be more effective than they really are. Even if a community has a law requiring “community notification” of the presence of sex offenders, few, if any, crimes would be prevented.

Volume 5, Number 6, July 2003: Sex offender registries and community notification of the presence of a convicted sex offender in a particular neighbourhood are of questionable value.

Volume 12, Number 5, May 2012: Juvenile sex offenders who met the criteria of the US federal law requiring registration as sex offenders were no more likely to reoffend – sexually or otherwise – than were offenders who did not meet the registration criteria.

Volume 11, Number 6, April 2011: Two common policies for dealing with sex offenders do not reduce the incidence of sex crime recidivism: (1) the requirement that sex offenders register their whereabouts with the police and (2) the requirement that police notify people who live in the same neighbourhood as convicted sex offenders of the sex offender’s whereabouts.

Volume 10, Number 3, April 2009: New York’s Sex Offender Registration and Notification Law had no impact on reducing sexual re-offending by rapists, child molesters, or other sex offenders.

Volume 9, Number 2, December 2007: Community notification about the whereabouts of sexual offenders released from prison has a negative impact on the very factors that appear to be important for their peaceful reintegration into society.

Volume 12, Number 2, October 2011: There are good reasons to believe that monitoring sex offenders with GPS devices will waste money and have no effect on reoffending.

Volume 8, Number 6, July 2007: Residency restrictions imposed on sex offenders in the community make little sense.

Volume 11, Number 4, September 2010: Conditions that are placed on sex offenders prohibiting them from living near schools and daycares do not contribute to public safety.

Volume 7, Number 4, August 2005: For sex offenders released from prison and living in the community, residence restrictions prohibiting them from living in certain areas seldom make sense.

Volume 12, Number 2, October 2011: One problem with sex offender residency restrictions is that they can make it impossible for a sex offender to find a legal place to live.

Volume 9, Number 2, December 2007: Ordinary citizens want sex o enders to be subject to civil commitment procedures largely in order to ensure that they are punished suffciently.

Volume 7, Number 2, March 2005: One problem with civil commitment laws as an approach to incarcerating those thought to be sexually violent predators is that experts cannot agree, when assessing individual cases, who a dangerous sexual predator is. 

Volume 9, Number 5, July 2008: Treatment can reduce the likelihood that sex o enders will re-offend.

Volume 9, Number 3, February 2008: A volunteer community-based program for sex offenders reduces re-offending.

Volume 11, Number 2, May 2010: A multi-site replication of a high intensity community program reduces recidivism for sex offenders after release from penitentiaries.

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