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Sex crimes that shock most are rare 

Karen Rivedal,, 608-252-6106, March 4, 2007

Two horrible crimes against children focused national attention on sex offenders starting in the mid-1990s.

Jacob Wetterling, 11, was kidnapped while riding his bike with his brother and a friend in October 1989 near his home in St. Joseph, Minn. They were stopped by a man with a gun who let the other boys go. Jacob has never been found.

Megan Kanka, 7, was raped and murdered by a twice- convicted child molester in her New Jersey neighborhood in July 1994. She was lured into the offender's house with a promise of seeing his puppy.

In response, a federal act in 1994 required all states to create registries of sex offenders. The law was amended in 1996 to require community notification provisions.

But federal statistics show such crimes, especially involving children, are very rare.

Less than 1 percent of all sex crimes involve murder, and the vast majority of sexually abused children - 60 percent to 80 percent - are molested by family members or close friends and acquaintances. Nearly 90 percent of adult victims know their assailants, according to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics.

So why do such cases tend to drive public perception about sex offenders?

"It's the vulnerability of the victims, the tragic harm done in a few, unusual cases," said John La Fond, a law professor and author of a 2005 book about sexual violence. "It's the magnitude of the horror vs. the probability of the risk. For most of us, it will never occur in our neighborhood."

Another common belief is that sex offenders can't be successfully treated, a conviction reinforced by studies in the 1980s that found no difference in re-offense rates between those who received treatment and those who didn't. 

"Once a sex offender, always a sex offender," said Pam Guilfoil, a mother of four who objected to the recent placement of two sex offenders in her Madison neighborhood on the Near West Side. 

But the relapse rate and treatment prospects of sex offenders is a gray and controversial area.

Most studies suggest that how likely a sex offender is to re-offend depends to a large extent on the type of crime committed.

A frequently cited, large study by the U.S. and Canadian governments in 1998 found that people who molest children not related to them and rapists of adults had reconviction rates of 13 percent and 19 percent, respectively, for sexual offenses after five years. A 1995 study of incest offenders showed a reconviction rate of about 9 percent after five years.

Re-offense rates for the general criminal population tend to be much higher. A 1983 study of more than 100,000 non-sex prisoners released from 11 states found a 47 percent reconviction rate after three years, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics.

But the damage done by a sexual offense can far outweigh that of many other kinds of crimes such as burglary or robbery.

And studies of recidivism, or re-offense, rates among sex offenders are far from unanimous. Results vary - and even contradict one another - depending on many factors, including how recidivism is defined and measured, the length of follow-up and the specific offender populations studied.

For example, a 1998 study of sex offenders showed considerably higher re-offense rates - 32 percent for molesters of unrelated children and 26 percent for rapists. But that study also followed offenders for 25 years and used a high-risk sample of 251 men who had been committed as sexual predators in a Massachusetts facility. 

When it comes to treatment, there has been little rigorous study of what works and what doesn't, according to the non- profit Center for Sex Offender Management in Silver Spring, Md., and the few studies that do exist have shown mixed results.

But newer practices that treat sexual offenses like a chemical addiction may show the most promise, according to the Association for the Treatment of Sexual Abusers in Beaverton, Ore.

Offenders are taught to control their behavior through a tailored approach focused on changing their thoughts, taking responsibility and avoiding triggers that cause them to re- offend, such as certain people, places or things.

With such an approach - coupled with the certainty of consequences for re-offending - it may be possible for motivated individuals to control their behavior, even if their underlying sexual perversion never goes away, experts said.

"I've been around sex offenders long enough to know that generally whatever they are attracted to, that feeling remains there," said Charles Onley, a research associate with CSOM. "But a lot of them like their freedom, too. They know acting on their deviant arousal will lead to prison."

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