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January 30, 2008

Lies, damned lies, and recidivism statistics

Stats Thanks to this post at Sex Crimes, I see that the Numbers Guy at the Wall Street Journal has this effective post asking the important question "How Likely Are Sex Offenders to Repeat Their Crimes?" and this related print story about the challenges of getting accurate data on sex offender recidivism.  Here are snippets of the blog post from the Numbers Guy:

In debates over laws monitoring released sex offenders, it’s common to hear claims that they’re sure to commit more sex crimes.... But as my print column this week points out, the numbers don’t bear this out.  Recidivism rates vary widely depending on which crimes are counted, the timeframe of the studies, and whether repeat offenses are defined by convictions, arrests, or self-reporting.  But even the author of a widely published report suggesting a recidivism rate of 52%, Wisconsin psychologist Dennis Doren, told me of the notion that all sex criminals are likely to re-offend, “There is no research support for that view, period.” ...

The conventional wisdom on sex-crime recidivism, coupled with high-profile sex crimes against children, has helped spur the spate of registry and neighbor-notification laws, even before they could be properly studied for their impact on recidivism rates. Several researchers, including Dr. Doren, say that residency-restriction laws may be counterproductive. Such a constraint “drives them out of their community, and leads to a lack of stability,” said Karen J. Terry, a criminologist at John Jay College in New York. “Those are some of the underlying conditions that caused them to abuse in the first place.” A consensus on how to measure recidivism, and determine its baseline rate, would help evaluate such laws.

This research is expensive and long-term follow-ups are, by definition, slow to produce results.  Even if we were to know whether rates have declined in recent years, it would be difficult to isolate the cause.  Dr. Doren proposes several alternate explanations for his perception that rates have declined in recent years, including better and more frequent treatment, and closer monitoring.

Critically, the challenging issues spotted by the Numbers Guy attend not only to sex offender recidivism.  The US Sentencing Commission did some very interesting work on recidivism a few years ago (see here and here and here), which found among other things that the recidivism predictor used by the the US Parole Commission two decades ago "is a statistically better recidivism risk prediction instrument than" the criminal history categories incorporated by the Sentencing Commission into the sentencing guidelines.

What's most disconcerting, however, is the common reality that even perfect crime rate studies and data about recidivism cannot alone significantly alter the public viewpoints and political debates.  As we often see in the context of the death penalty, statistical realities and empirical debates often serve —perhaps sometimes just unconsciously —  as cover for the expression of other normative concerns.  Though I sincerely hope lots of smart folks will continue crunching public safety numbers, policy advocates need to invest more time in thinking about how to effectively operationalize solid data insights into sound sentencing reforms.

January 30, 2008 at 10:57 AM | Permalink


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The Numbers Guy at the Wall Street Journal recently tackled the issue of sex offender recidivism. Here is an excerpt from the post:In debates over laws monitoring released sex offenders, it’s common to hear claims that they’re sure to commit [Read More]

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The folks who do risk corrections assessment call the problem "the nasty surprise" when a low risk offender commits a heinous crime. One of the possible consequences if a sex offender on parole rapes and murders a child is that parole could be terminated for everyone. On the other hand if a forger on parole passes a bad check that is not a surprise and the adverse consequences are limited.

Parents of young children don't care that sex offenders have a low recidivism rates they don't want them near their children. We are spending a lot of money and tromping on peoples civil rights to give these parents a sense of false security.

Posted by: John Neff | Jan 30, 2008 12:04:12 PM

RE: "But even the author of a widely published report suggesting a recidivism rate of 52%, ..."

If this is referring to a 1997 study by Prentky then as Prentky said, it should not be misapplied.

To understand why so many folks are misapplying that 52% (and usually mentioning 39% too) please review the following:

It appears Prentky failed to carry forward his own warning from one study to another and that has resulted in many folks misapplying those recidivism numbers.

Posted by: Rob | Jan 30, 2008 1:31:57 PM

Rob - as soon as people find something that fits into their ideological thinking they hardly ever read past that point and look for anything that might contradict their view point.

Posted by: Mark | Jan 30, 2008 4:50:23 PM

I have links to many recidivism studies below, as well as a 50 state study and state specific studies, all which show LOW recidivism rates.


Posted by: ZMan | Jan 30, 2008 5:12:02 PM

There is also the problem of grouping all sex offenders together. That is, violent sex offenders with those charged with possession of child pornography. Differences appear to exist within recidivism rates.

Posted by: O | Jan 31, 2008 11:45:37 AM

An interesting piece re. child pornography offenders:

Michael C. Seto & Angela W. Eke, The Criminal Histories and Later Offending of Child Pornography Offenders, 17 Sexual Abuse: A Journal of Research and Treatment 201 (2005)

Posted by: O | Jan 31, 2008 11:46:46 AM

First of all a registered sex offender is reading your blog. This registered offender committed an offence 26 years ago with a 13 year old girl. Sentence is long done and over with.
I have a wife and 2 children and 2 stepchildren.
I have to register. I have been evicted from 3 places because people found out I was an RSO. (All after my sentence had expired).
I cannot go to my kids school without written permission. People who know about my registration status have labelled me a pedophile. I'm sorry, but a teenage girl flirting with a guy only seven years older and the guy falling overboard for her does not constitute pedophilia!
I did fine for years without the registry and it seems every year it gets stricter and stricter... long after I had been freed of the sentence!
This is injustice.
The most recent twist is they now want next of kin or personsliving with you listed on their registration forms. So my wife is in the database, though I don't know if her name will be listed on the online registry. Her car already is, as is my car.
When will it end?
I hope Obama does make some changes and that includes the gross injustices committed by the national sex offender registry policies.

Posted by: JWC | Dec 3, 2008 5:19:50 PM

I'm sorry I guess you cannot edit these replies so I'll just add here:
During one eviction procedure that was instigated by the county prosecutor for living a few feet within 1000' of a school, my wife was pregnant and when I was ordered to move our son was 2 months old. The prosecutor didn't care. He said I had to move, not my wife. So that tells me they can abuse families and children by separating them with their laws? We moved, AS A FAMILY. IN WINTER. 2 month old son had to stay in motels with my wife while I built a cabin on our land we fortunately owned away from any town limits and schools.
Our second child is fine, our cabin is now a 1000 square foot house, my stepchildren are fine.
So I ask, what if this was YOUR family, and, did every single lawmaker and law enforcement officer not have some sort of relations with underage girls or boys? I know from a few that would be a total lie.
They hide dark secrets and when someone else is exposed by a pregnancy or an irate parent they jump on them like a shark on chum.

Posted by: JWC | Dec 3, 2008 5:29:31 PM

JWC, I hope you come back to find this comment. My heart goes out to you and your family. You don't mention what state you live in; I know the SOR restrictions vary from state to state.

My husband is under investigation for receipt of child porn and I started a blog, http://handbasketnotes.blogspot.com/, hoping to be a place where others in my position can find understanding.

I wish you well.

Posted by: marie | May 22, 2012 7:36:48 PM

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