Monday, January 14, 2008

Facts about sex offenders (FL study)

Myths and Facts about Sexual Offenders: Implications for Treatment and Public Policy

Timothy Fortney1, Jill Levenson2, Yolanda Brannon3 & Juanita N. Baker4
1Florida Institute of Technology, 2Lynn University, 3Florida Institute of Technology, 4Florida Institute of Technology

[Sexual Offender Treatment, Volume 2 (2007), Issue 1]

View the article here:


Aim: The purpose of this study was to determine to what extent perceptions about sexual offenders are based on empirical evidence or misconceptions.
Background: Sexual offenders have often been under the spotlight of media attention and public censure. Legislatures in the United States and abroad have passed increasingly restrictive and intrusive laws in order to protect the public from convicted sexual offenders. Sex offender policies are often passed hastily and are not based on scientific evidence but on emotional reactions to high profile, violent, disturbing cases.
Method: Data were collected in Brevard County, Florida from 192 community members and 125 sexual offenders in outpatient treatment, all of whom were surveyed regarding their knowledge about five common themes. Comparisons between groups were analyzed, as were comparisons between participants’ responses and published data.
Results: Results revealed that both sex offenders and the public overestimated the rate by which strangers victimize children, and overestimated the number of sex offenders who were victims of sexual abuse in childhood. Both offenders and the public overestimated the number of sex crimes that come to the attention of authorities. The public more extensively than offenders overestimated the frequency of sexual recidivism rates and underestimated the efficacy of sexual offender treatment in comparison to the literature.
Conclusions: Common misconceptions may interfere with offenders’ treatment and reintegration into society as well as influence legislatures to pass laws that are misguided and inefficient. Implications for policy and practice are discussed.

Some interesting excerts from this study:

Given the enormous attention that is paid to sexual offenders, both in the U.S. and internationally, there is a specific need for more accurate information to be disseminated to the public.

The Department of Justice reported that 34% of sexually abused minors were assaulted by relatives and 59% of their perpetrators were acquaintances (Bureau of Justice Statistics, 2000). About 49% of victims under the age of 6 are abused by family members and only 7% of sex crimes against minors are perpetrated by strangers (Bureau of Justice Statistics, 2000). Comparatively, in 73% of adult sexual assault cases, the perpetrators were relatives or acquaintances, with 27% described as strangers (Bureau of Justice Statistics, 2000).

In 2004, nearly 210,000 rapes and sexual assaults occurred in the U.S. involving victims over the age of 12 (Bureau of Justice Statistics, 2005). Sexual crimes, like most crimes, tend to be under-reported, and actual victimization rates are believed to be much higher than rates of detection. Though 50% of violent crime victims over age 12 contacted the police, only 36% of the sexual assault victims over age 12 reported the crime to authorities (Bureau of Justice Statistics, 2005). Sexual abuse of young children is even more likely to go unreported for many reasons, including dependence on caretakers, minimal interaction with outside protectors, underdeveloped cognitive abilities, and diminished capacity to articulate (Finkelhor, Ormrod, Turner, & Hamby, 2005; Fontanella, Harrington, & Zuravin, 2000). Studies using polygraph examinations to elicit disclosures have found that sex offenders have often committed sex crimes that went undisclosed and were never reported to police or child protection agencies (Ahlmeyer, Heil, McKee, & English, 2000; English, Jones, Pasini-Hill, Patrick, & Cooley-Towell, 2000; Heil, Ahlmeyer, & Simons, 2003). Official reports are therefore likely to underestimate actual incidence of sexual violence, and rates of detection for sex crimes against young children are probably lower than the 36% described by the Department of Justice.

Research has revealed a wide variation in the estimated incidence of childhood sexual abuse among offenders (Hanson & Slater, 1988; Hindman & Peters, 2001; Schwartz, 1995). It is often assumed that early sexual maltreatment creates a cycle of abuse that will be repeated when the child becomes an adult. Among incarcerated criminals, 45% described themselves as being the victim of sexual assault (Schwartz, 1995). Becker and Murphy (1998) estimated that 30% of sexual offenders were sexually abused as children. An earlier study (Groth, 1979) found that 63% of incarcerated sex offenders reported being sexually abused as children or being pressured into sexual activity by an adult. A meta-analysis of empirical studies containing a total of 1,717 subjects found that 28% of sex offenders reported a history of childhood sexual abuse, (Hanson & Slater, 1988) significantly greater than the 17% rate of sexual victimization of boys in the general population suggested by Hunter (1990). Results of another study showed that 67% of sex offenders initially reported experiencing sexual abuse as children, but when polygraphed, the proportion dropped to 29%, suggesting that some men may fabricate or exaggerate early childhood trauma in an attempt to rationalize their behavior or gain sympathy from others (Hindman & Peters, 2001). A review of all published empirical articles written in English after 1989 found that the average child sexual abuse rates in the general public were about 17% for women and 8% for men (Putnam, 2003). So, in general the research suggests that slightly less than a third of sex offenders report childhood sexual victimization, which appears to differ markedly from reported rates in the general population.

In a longitudinal study that followed 4,724 known sex offenders over a period of 15 years, 24% were charged with, or convicted of, a new sexual offense (Harris & Hanson, 2004). The U.S. Department of Justice found that 5% of 9,691 sex offenders released from prison were re-arrested for new sex crimes within three years (Bureau of Justice Statistics, 2003). In two meta-analyses of 82 recidivism studies involving over 29,000 sex offenders from the U.S., Canada, and Europe, recidivism rates were observed to be 14% over four to six years (Hanson & Bussiere, 1998; Hanson & Morton-Bourgon, 2005). Contrary to oft-cited rhetoric, rapists are more likely to reoffend than child molesters, with average recidivism rates of about 20% and 13% respectively (Hanson & Bussiere, 1998).

The randomly designed Sex Offender Treatment and Evaluation Project (SOTEP) study found no differences between treated and untreated groups in sexual or violent reoffending of both rapists and child molesters over an eight year follow-up period (Marques, Wiederanders, Day, Nelson, & van Ommeren, 2005). When those who had successfully completed treatment goals were compared with those who had not, however, there was a significant difference with treated groups demonstrating lower recidivism rates (Marques et al., 2005). Other studies have concluded that sex offenders who did not participate in psychological treatment had a higher recidivism rate (17%) than those who received cognitive behavioral therapy (10%) (Hanson, Gordon, Harris, Marques, Murphy, Quinsey, & Seto, 2002). Treatment for first time offenders seems even more promising; 9% of first time offenders in treatment recidivated, compared to 27% of those who went untreated (Nicholaichuk, Gordon, Gu, & Wong, 2000).

For instance, studies in Washington and Wisconsin found that most residents were familiar with Megan’s Law and strongly supported community notification (Phillips, 1998; Zevitz & Farkas, 2000).

Since sex offending is kept secret and offenders often deny or minimize their deviance even to themselves, they are reluctant to reveal their status to others. Of course, public notification has increased awareness of sex offenders living among us, and extensive media attention often highlights egregious or recidivistic cases.

Table 2: Characteristics of the Sex Offender Sample

Frequency Percent
Relationship to Victim
Victim Type
Parent/Parent Role 14 11%
Child <6 6 5%
Relative 19 15%
Child 7-12 17 14%
Friend of Family 14 11%
Teen 13-17 62 50%
Acquaintance 44 35%
Adult only 11 9%
Stranger 21 17%a
Child & Teen 9 7%
Not reported 13 10%
Teen & Adults 1 1%
Child, Teen & Adult 5 4%
Not Reported 14 11%

Gender of Victim

Males 11 9%
Females 93 74%
Both Genders 8 6%
Not Reported 13 10%

Number of Victims 2.4
Age of Victim 14
Months in Treatment 41

Note. a Those identifying victims as strangers were all internet related offenses.

Until parents are better educated about the situations in which children are likely to be abused, and the grooming patterns of offenders known to their victims, little can be expected in terms of enhancing child protection from sexual violence with policies that emphasize victimization by strangers.

Having an accurate picture of who is at risk can serve as a powerful relapse prevention tool to help offenders recognize and avoid situations in which they have opportunities to cultivate relationships for the purposes of grooming or re-offending. The stereotypical fear of a creepy guy snatching a child from a playground or luring a youngster into a car with promises of candy may allow sex offenders to continue to minimize their potential to reoffend with distorted rationalizations: “I would never do that.”

Both groups appeared to overestimate the number of offenders who were themselves victims of sexual abuse. Offenders, however, were more realistic in their impressions, perhaps due to some of them knowing that they themselves were not abused nor were many others in their treatment groups. Though the rate of abuse that our offenders reported is similar (albeit somewhat higher) to the literature in this area and higher in comparison to males in the community, the public perception that a majority of offenders are abused as children appears to be prevalent. Important to note is that we did not ask whether respondents considered themselves to have been abused, but rather we asked whether they had experienced sexual activity as a child or young teen with someone at least 5 years older. Males in particular do not always define such experiences as “sexual abuse,” though such events meet statutory criteria for a sex crime in most states.

Defiance theory suggests that harsh sanctions perceived as unfair by criminal offenders can set up a counter-therapeutic reaction when offenders lament the injustice of discrimination and rebel against society’s iniquitous treatment of them (Sherman, 1993).
Ostracizing sex offenders may divert their energies and attention from the real task of learning therapeutic skills and positive cognitions to prevent future abuse, and leave them overly focused on their anger at society and sense of unfairness.
(sounds like some sex offenders we all know)

1 comment:

Stitches77 said...

"Since sex offending is kept secret and offenders often deny or minimize their deviance even to themselves, they are reluctant to reveal their status to others. Of course, public notification has increased awareness of sex offenders living among us, and extensive media attention often highlights egregious or recidivistic cases."

I've never understood why so many sex offender apologists seem to think that people believe strangers are the ones we are most worried about, or why they think the fact that most sexual abuse of children is committed by someone they know means that sex offenders shouldn't be on a registry.

I don't imagine Uncle George would inform his little nieces that he's a convicted pervert. Or that nice man you're dating would inform you that he's after your children. Or the guy next door, or the father/stepfather/brother /uncle/cousin of the your childs friend before they invite your child into their home.

No, strangers can do dastardly deeds alright. But the biggest dangers are the people your children already know. Thank God we can look them up on a registry, and it also keeps us aware of the ones who haven't yet been identified and the behaviors we should be aware of.

America has finally taken notice of a plague upon children that it ignored for far too long.

Dr. Bill Glaser said:

"There are some who say that we are becoming unnecessarily panicky about child sexual abuse. The evidence is that we have not panicked enough."

"If we had some sort of plague or epidemic which affected one in four girls, one in eight boys, there would be a national outcry about it and we would be setting up national coordinated efforts to deal with the problem as we have with modern day epidemics such as HIV."

And this:

"The measure of successful treatment is not that of a happy perpetrator but rather of a safe victim."