Low reoffending risk found for child porn users

Peter Munro

March 11, 2012

REOFFENDING rates by child pornography users are far below rates for assaults, drink-driving or property damage, with fewer than one in 10 people who download sexual images of minors later convicted of the crime again.

Despite community concern about the dangers posed by convicted child pornography users, new Corrections Victoria figures reveal only about 7.5 per cent are found to reoffend. The recidivism rate for those convicted of assault is five times as high, according to comparable data from NSW.

The Victorian study also found that intensive treatment and supervision orders for people found guilty of child pornography possession, including group counselling and mandatory listing on the sex offenders register, might actually increase the risk of reoffending.

"Overly restrictive or intrusive interventions for an offender who is considered low risk may be unnecessary and may lead to experiences of depression or isolation, or withdrawal from social activities, which can increase the risk of reoffending," said psychologist Simon Candlish, who conducted the research for Corrections Victoria. Case management, education and brief psychological intervention were more effective treatments for "low-risk" offenders, he said.

The majority of those convicted of child-pornography-only possession - as distinct from procuring children or producing such material - had a low risk of reoffending, Mr Candlish said.

"For many, their interest in child pornography arises out of a broader interest in extreme pornography rather than a preferential interest in having sex with children," he said.

"Ordinarily these people are quite pro-social and respond to a conviction quite seriously, and that's potentially enough for them to abstain from that kind of behaviour in the future … When you compare it against contact sex offending rates or other types of offending behaviour, including violence, drug and alcohol and anti-social behaviour, the recidivism rate is low."

But advocacy group Bravehearts said recidivism rates understated the incidence of child pornography offending.

"We are probably missing a whole heap of offenders who have gone on to reoffend but haven't been caught or convicted," said research manager Carol Ronken. "For every one of these images downloaded or produced a child is being harmed."

The study, to be published this year, tracked recidivism rates for 93 men convicted of possessing or downloading sexual images of under-18s between 2000 and 2005. Most of the offenders - aged between 18 and 74, and typically well-educated, white-collar workers - received community-based orders of up to two years.

None of those studied were found to have reoffended in the first four years after their conviction. By 2011, between six and 11 years after their conviction, 7.5 per cent had been convicted again of child pornography possession. About 2 per cent had also committed child sexual contact offences.

Sexual preoccupation, the possession of a large number of pornographic images and interaction with other child pornography users online potentially increased the risk of reoffending, the study found. The severity of the images and age of the child victim were not related to risk of reoffending.

Sentencing Advisory Council chairman Arie Freiberg said various studies in Australia and abroad showed low reoffending rates for sex offences generally.

"It's a finding that runs against the conventional or popular view that sex offenders are highly recidivist," he said.

Sanctions such as Victoria's sex offenders register, which has grown to about 4000 people, are potentially counterproductive in trying to reduce reoffending, he said. "All the evidence I am aware of shows it has minimal impact on the incidence and nature of sexual offending … The implication is we are making public policy decisions on the basis of emotion and impression rather than on the basis of scientific evidence.

''But you always have to put in a caveat that reoffending rates may be low because they are difficult to detect."

The number of Australians arrested by federal police for child pornography offences jumped 30 per cent to 180 last year. State Corrections Minister Andrew McIntosh did not respond to calls for comment.