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We need a change in approach to sex offenders

Richard Johnson, November 16, 2008, Tribune News

Most people seem to believe that sex offenders have a higher re-offending rate than any other category of criminal. A figure I hear tossed around a lot says that 95 percent of sex offenders will commit another sex crime if they get the chance.

If this is true, then it is evidence that most sex offenders - almost all of them - will continue to commit sex crimes. If this is true, then it means that most sex offenders can't help their behavior. They will never change. They are beyond help. 

If sex offenders really cannot and will not change, then society is justified in wanting to lock them up and throw away the keys. After sex offenders serve their time and get out of prison, it is right that they should be required to register on a database for the rest of their
lives. Again, this sounds fine to me; at least, it would if that 95 percent re-offending rate was true. 

It is not true. 

A study done by the U.S. Bureau of Justice in 1994 says so. 

There were 9,691 male sex offenders released from prison in 1994, representing two-thirds of all sex offenders released from custody that year. This was not one of those studies where they interview 100 people and then stretch their conclusions to cover 100,000 people. This was an excellent study with a huge sample, whose conclusions can be trusted. 

Let me highlight a few of its conclusions.


only 5.3 percent, or 517 men, of released sex offenders tracked in the study were arrested again for another sex crime. Only 3.5 percent, representing two-thirds of those arrested, were convicted. While I absolutely agree that 3.5 percent is still 100 percent too many, it's a whole lot smaller than that 95 percent figure so many of us throw around.


The 9,691 men in the study included 4,295 child molesters. Of these, 3.3 percent, or 141 men, were arrested again for another sex crime involving a child; again, hardly 95 percent. Half of the child molesters were 19 years of age or younger when they committed their crime. And 60 percent of their victims were children 13 years of age or younger. 


The study goes on to show that released pedophiles with more than one arrest for molesting a child were three times as likely - 7.3 percent to 2.4 percent - to be arrested again for child molesting than those with only one prior arrest. This seems to indicate that the sooner pedophiles are caught, the less likely they are to re-offend. 


sex offenders (including child molesters) were less likely to be re-arrested for any kind of crime after their release than non-sex offenders - 43 percent for sex offenders versus 68 percent for non-sex offenders.

OK, we've got some figures and statistics to look at here, but so what?

How does this help us prevent sex crimes? How does this help us stop sex offenders from re-offending? How can we find a way to reduce the number of victims, especially children, who are being abused by some very sick people?

For starters, if we're going to reduce sex crimes, then we ought to have good intelligence and gather the best information possible. We need to understand the true nature and actual scope of the problem. We need to deal with facts, so we can develop a plan of action based on those facts. The figures given in this study help us get there. 

As long as most people believe that 95 percent of sex offenders will re-offend; 
as long as too many of us think that sex offenders cannot and will not change; 
as long as we lump all sex offenders into one category and fail to take the exact nature of each offense into consideration; 
as long as we let our emotional responses to a truly heinous crime drive our public policy (especially our anger and outrage); and 
as long as we think that putting every sex offender into a public database will solve our problem: 

We will not be ready to craft an effective response to this tough and emotional issue.

Almost every day, someone asks me, "What can we do about sex offenders?" That's too short a question, and the answer is quite long - too long for one column.

For the moment, let me just say that something can be done. Change is in the air, and a change in our overall approach is needed. But before we can start discussing solutions, we've got to get the rest of the facts out on the table. 

In the weeks ahead, I will do my best to bring facts to this public forum in the hope that our community can find a reasonable and effective way to deal with sex offenses, and the people who commit them. 

In the meantime, please don't shoot the messenger.

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