"Myths and Facts"
Current Research on Managing Sex Offenders
April 2008

The most important goal of effective sex offender management is to protect people from sex offenders and to prevent new sex crimes. Although this is a difficult goal to achieve, the best way to pursue it is to follow policies and strategies that are based on evidence, and that have been proven to work.

A first step is to separate "myths" from "facts." This document presents some of the most common "myths" concerning sex offenders and summarizes what research has shown concerning these issues. However, sex offender management is a relatively new field, and research is constantly being updated. As a result, we do not know the "answer" to every question, and some of the issues discussed below are controversial. Research in this area is continually evolving and we will do our best to keep you informed of the latest advances.

The Office of Sex Offender Management (OSOM) and the Division of Criminal Justice Services (DCJS) are not endorsing any of the research cited below, nor taking sides on these issues. Instead, we are presenting a balanced summary of what we know (and do not know) concerning these issues.

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Myth: Most sexual offenses are committed by strangers.
Fact: Most sexual offenses are committed by family members or acquaintances.

  • According to the U.S. Department of Justice, 86% of all sexual assault cases reported to law enforcement were committed by someone known to the victim – a family member or acquaintance (Bureau of Justice Statistics, 2000).
  • The U.S. Department of Justice reports that 93% of victims under the age of 17, and 73% of victims age 18 and older, were assaulted by someone they knew. Where the victim was a child, 34% of offenders were family members and 59% were acquaintances (Bureau of Justice Statistics, 2000).
  • Multiple studies have shown that sex offenders often establish contact with their victims through their relationship with another person, most commonly an adult. For example, repeat sex offenders in one study used romantic relationships with women to gain access to the women's children. Offenders can also gain access to victims through babysitting for someone they know or by living with friends who have children (Minnesota Department of Corrections, 2007).

Myth: Only males commit sex offenses.
Fact: Although most offenders are male, females commit sex offenses too.

  • Of the 12,992 people whose cases were disposed of between 2005 and 2006 for sexual offenses in New York State, 97% were male (New York State Sex Offender Management Grant, 2007). Therefore, we estimate that 3% were female.
  • As of December 2007, about 2% (510) of the people required to register under New York's Sex Offender Registration Act (SORA) were female (data from the New York State Division of Criminal Justice Services, Sex Offender Registry).
  • The New York data are similar to those reported in other states. For example, in 12 states between 1991 and 1996, 96% of the individuals in sexual assaults reported to law enforcement were male. From that we can calculate that 4% were female. It is interesting that females were charged with a higher percentage of assaults against victims under age six. Twelve percent of these offenders were female, as compared with 6% of the offenders in assaults against victims age 6 through 12, and 3% against victims age 12 through 17 (Bureau of Justice Statistics, 2000).

Myth: Children who are sexually assaulted will grow up to sexually assault others.
Fact: A significant percentage of sex offenders were indeed abused as children, although certainly not the majority.

  • Becker and Murphy (1998) estimated that while 30% of sex offenders were sexually abused as children, 70% were not.
  • Hindman and Peters (2001) found that 67% of sex offenders initially reported experiencing sexual abuse as children, but when given a polygraph ("lie detector") test, the proportion dropped to 29%, suggesting that some sex offenders exaggerate early childhood victimization in an effort to rationalize their behavior or gain sympathy from others.

Myth: Adolescents do not commit sex offenses.
Fact: Adolescents represent a fair number of sex offenders.

  • Roughly 1,100 (8%) of arrests with dispositions in New York State between 2005 and 2006 for sexual offenses were committed by perpetrators under the age of 18 (New York State Sex Offender Management Grant, 2007).
  • Nationally, 23% of sexual assault offenders were under the age of 18. About 4% were under the age of twelve. Forty percent of the offenders who assaulted children under the age of six were themselves less than 18 (Bureau of Justice Statistics, 2000).
  • Approximately one-third of sexual offenses against children are committed by teenagers. Sexual offenses against young children under 12 years of age are typically committed by boys between the ages of 12 and 15 (Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, 1999; Davis & Leitenberg, 1987).

Myth: Child molesters spontaneously attack when they see a vulnerable potential victim.
Fact: Many child molesters and pedophiles spend years positioning themselves into a place of authority and trust within the community, and can spend a long time "grooming" one child.

Pedophiles and child molesters behave in ways to gain a parent's trust, often ingratiating themselves with the victim's family or guardian. They often select their potential victims carefully, targeting children who are seeking adult attention. Often there is a period before the molester engages in any inappropriate behavior, and during this time the molester presents himself in a positive light, exhibits interest in the child, is complimentary, and behaves in a positive way to reassure anyone who may be suspicious of his motives (Sinclair's commentary, as cited in Schiff, 2002, ¶8).

Myth: The majority of sex crimes are reported.
Fact: Most sex crimes are not reported and, therefore, are not prosecuted.

  • According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics' 2006 report on the National Crime Victimization Survey, rapes and sexual assaults of victims age 12 and older were reported to the police in 38% of cases. This varies by the relationship to the offender, with 56% of offenses involving strangers being reported, and only 28% of offenses involving non-strangers being reported. These reporting rates also vary by victim age:
Victim Age Percent Reporting the
Assault to Police
12-19 33%
20-34 30%
35-49 62%
50-64 37%
  • Eleven percent of child rape victims reported the crime, though not necessarily to the police (Smith, Letourneau, Saunders, Kilpatrick, Resnick & Best, 2000); 2-8% of incest victims report sexual offenses (U.S. Department of Justice, 2003).
  • Although 50% of violent crime victims over the age of 12 contact police, only 36% of sexual assault victims over the age of 12 report the crime to authorities (Bureau of Justice Statistics, 2005).
  • Studies using the polygraph ("lie detector test") have found that sex offenders have often committed sex crimes that went undisclosed and were never reported to police or child protective agencies (Ahlmeyer, Heil, McKee, & English, 2000; English, Jones, Pasini-Hill, & Cooley-Towell, 2000).

Myth: Treatment for sex offenders does not work.
Fact: The evidence is mixed; some studies show treatment has little or no impact, but other studies indicate that treatment can decrease future sexual crimes.

Background: Studying the effect of treatment is difficult for a number of reasons. First, treatment approaches have changed dramatically over the years, and earlier treatment approaches have been replaced with more effective ones. Second, the best way to study whether treatment works would be to randomly divide sex offenders into two groups and provide treatment to one group and not the other. However, this has only been done rarely due to ethical concerns (it would be counter to public policy to treat one group of dangerous sex offenders and not another when they will both ultimately be released to the community). Instead, researchers often look at groups of treated and untreated sex offenders, and try to match them on similar characteristics. Third, it is difficult to measure recidivism because many sexual offenses are never reported. As a result, different studies have taken different approaches regarding recidivism, and have sometimes come up with very different results as to whether or not treatment works.

Some studies show little or no impact: The only study to date which has used a randomized sample showed little or no effect on recidivism. Researchers compared three groups of sex offenders: those who volunteered to participate in relapse prevention treatment, those who had volunteered but were not selected to receive treatment, and those who chose not to participate. After being in the community for anywhere from 5 to 14 years, rates of new sexual, violent and general criminal activity were similar in the three groups. The researchers acknowledge that one possible flaw in the methodology was that the same type of treatment was used for all sex offenders in their study, and that different types of treatment could be more effective for different types of offenders (Marques, Wiederanders, Day, Nelson & van Ommeren, 2005).

Other studies show an impact: Many studies indicate treatment can reduce recidivism, but it is unclear how much.

  • Research that looks at groups of treated and untreated sex offenders, and matches them on similar characteristics, has shown that treatment is moderately effective at reducing sexual reoffense (Thornton, 2008).
  • Some studies have shown that intensity and length of treatment have an effect on reoffense rates (Lowden, Hetz, Harrison, Partick, English & Pasini-Hill, 2003).
  • Several studies have shown significantly lower rates of repeat sex offenses for those offenders who successfully completed treatment goals, compared to those who did not (Gallagher, Wilson, Hirschfield, Coggeshall, & MacKenzie, 1999; Hanson, Gordon, Harris, Marques, Murphy, Quinsey, & Seto, 2002; Lösel & Schmucker, 2005; Nicholaichuk, Gordon, Gu, & Wong, 2000; Looman, Abracen, & Nicholaichuk, 2000; McGrath, Cumming, & Burchard 2003).
  • Treatment can help many offenders to learn to control their behavior by recognizing and changing the thoughts that rationalize sexually abusive behavior in their own minds (ATSA,"Ten Things"; ATSA, "Facts," undated).

Lessons: Although research results are mixed, there are some lessons:

  • There are many types of sex offenders, with different patterns, types of abuse, and motivations. For many sex offenders, treatment can be successful if it is geared toward the type of abuse and reasons behind it. Treatment combined with appropriate supervision and offender accountability can be even more effective (Alexander, 1999).
  • Different types of offenders may respond to different treatment methods (Center for Sex Offender Management, 2000).
  • In general, it appears that adolescents are more responsive to treatment than adults and many do not continue reoffending into adulthood when provided with treatment (ATSA, undated). In addition, a number of studies cite "non-sexual problems" as the biggest factor behind serious sex crimes committed by children. By treating issues such as conduct disorders, depression, and learning disabilities, it can help young sex offenders to stop committing sex offenses (Gordon & Schroeder, 1995).

Myth: Electronic monitoring devices, such as GPS will protect us from sex offenders since we will know where they are at all times.
Fact: Electronic monitoring can be useful, but has both positive and negative aspects.

  • Positive aspects of using GPS include:
    • GPS tracking data can be used to assist with crime investigations;
    • GPS may deter an offender from going to certain locations where they are not supposed to be (for example the victim's home);
    • GPS may discourage an offender's former criminal associates from maintaining contact with him;
    • GPS may give community supervision agencies opportunities to better manage the sex offenders rather than just monitoring them (Brown & McCabe, 2008);
    • GPS appears to act as a deterrent for at least some unwanted behaviors;
    • Provides an extra "set of eyes";
    • Relatively cost effective (compared to prison).
  • Negative aspects of GPS include:
    • Active GPS workloads can be time-consuming;
    • GPS cannot prevent an offender from committing a crime (Brown & McCabe, 2008);
    • The system indicates the location but does not tell what the supervisee is doing;
    • GPS does not reveal locations within a building (e.g. the offender can wander around inside an apartment building);
    • It does not tell you who the supervisee is talking to or watching;
    • Alarms due to hardware malfunctions cannot immediately be distinguished from violations due to the offender leaving the area where he is supposed to be (Morgan & Glover, 2008).
  • The Minnesota Department of Corrections noted some of the disadvantages of GPS: $14 per day per person for an active GPS system, not including the cost of the supervising agent (probation or parole officer, etc.); significantly more staffing is required to respond to alerts 24/7; it is dependent on cellular signals and connections to satellite signals, so if an offender enters a "dead spot" the tracking is compromised (Minnesota Department of Corrections, 2006).
  • GPS surveillance can be enhanced with additional tools. Those may include a task force to assist personnel in surveillance, sharing of information between agencies (law enforcement, treatment providers, and supervision), regular face-to-face contacts, regular contacts with those associated with the offender, and unannounced home and work visits (Morgan & Glover, 2008).
  • GPS is only effective with diligent, trained supervisory staff tracking locations and alarms. Many people believe that GPS is doing the tracking when in fact it is the trained staff doing the tracking with the help of the GPS equipment and software (Morgan & Glover, 2008).

Myth: Residency restrictions make communities safer.
Fact: Residency restrictions are fairly recent, and it is unclear if they make communities safer or not.

Background: Residency laws usually mandate that an offender cannot live within a certain distance from schools or day care facilities. Typically, it is 1,000 feet, but may be as little as 500 or as much as 2,500 feet. Some restrictions include other locations such as churches, parks, gymnasiums, school bus stops, recreation facilities, and playgrounds. Some restrictions prohibit the offender from working or being present in those zones (Human Rights Watch, 2007). Residency laws are often justified as a way to protect children: if offenders are prohibited from living near a school or playground, they will not be near children and therefore will be less likely to attack a child. However, residency restriction laws in most states, including some areas of New York State, apply to all registered offenders, regardless of whether their crimes involved children (Human Rights Watch, 2007).

New York State does not limit where a sex offender can live, however, if a sex offender is on parole or probation, the terms of the offender's parole or probation may limit where he or she can travel. For example, if a sex offender is on probation or parole for a crime against someone under 18, or is a level 3 offender, he cannot enter the grounds of any school or child care facility.

  • Because residency laws are fairly recent, little research has been done as to what long-term impact they may have on community safety or their efficacy in protecting children. However, there have been more studies on related issues, such as how often children are assaulted by strangers, and where most attacks on children take place.
    • How often are children attacked by strangers? Sometimes children are assaulted by strangers. However, as discussed in the first "myth" most children are sexually assaulted by someone they know, not by a stranger. The U.S. Department of Justice reports that 93% of victims under the age of 17, and 73% of victims age 18 and older, were assaulted by someone they knew. Where the victim was a child, 34% of offenders were family members and 59% were acquaintances (Bureau of Justice Statistics, 2000).
    • How often are children assaulted near parks or near schools? Most sexual assaults take place in a home, and not in a park or on a school ground.
      • About 60% of sexual assaults on victims age 12 and older take place in a victim's own home or in the home of a friend, neighbor or relative. Only 11% of these offenses occurred on school property or in a yard, park, field or playground (Bureau of Justice Statistics, 2006). Only 16% of the sexual assaults of youth below the age of 12 occurred in a place other than a residence (Bureau of Justice Statistics, 2000).
      • The Colorado Department of Public Safety found that convicted child molesters in Colorado who committed another sex offense while on probation were randomly scattered throughout the geographical area, and did not seem to live closer to schools or child care centers than those who did not commit another sex offense (Colorado Department of Public Safety, 2004).
      • A study in Minnesota attempted to track whether sex offenders contacted their victims near their homes or not. The study showed that when offenders contacted juveniles, they often did so more than a mile away from where the offender lived. Of the few offenders who directly contacted a juvenile near the juvenile's home, none did so near a school, park, or playground. The study concluded that none of the 224 offenses examined would have been prevented by residency restrictions (Duwe, Donnay & Tewksbury, 2008).
      • A meta-analysis on the journey-to-crime of sex offenders (Beauregard, Proulx & Rossmo, 2005) found that on average, most sexual offenders traveled a minimum of one mile from their home to commit their crime.
  • Residency laws may have another impact: They can drive offenders into homelessness, which may make it harder to track and supervise them.
    • Within six months of the implementation of Iowa's 2,000-foot law, thousands of sex offenders became homeless or transient, making them more difficult to track and monitor. The number of registered sex offenders in Iowa who could not be located more than doubled, damaging the reliability and validity of the sex offender registry (Rood, 2006). An Iowa Sheriff stated, "We are less safe as a community now than we were before the residency restrictions" (Human Rights Watch, 2007).
    • The California Sex Offender Management Board concluded that the number of affected sex offenders statewide, and parolees in particular who declared themselves as transient since the implementation of Jessica's Law increased dramatically. In January of 2008, they reported that of 3,884 parolees subject to residency restrictions and registration, 718 (18.5%) have registered their address as "transient." This represents an increase of 715% over the 88 reported in November of 2006 when the law took effect. (California Sex Offender Management Board, 2008).
    • From the general criminal recidivism research, we know that shelter use, both before incarceration and after release are associated with an increased risk of return to prison; risk of re-incarceration increased 23% with pre-release shelter stay and 17% with post-release shelter stay (Metraux & Culhane, 2004).

Myth: Community notification and sex offender registries make communities safer
Fact: Registries help identify where sex offenders live in order for the public to protect their families.

Background: In New York, anyone who commits a designated sex offense must register with the Division of Criminal Justice Services Sex Offender Registry. Failure to register is a felony. Under the law, police departments and other local law enforcement agencies can carry out community notification.

  • The vast majority of sex crimes are committed by someone who is not on the Sex Offender Registry. During 2005-2006, approximately 94% of the persons arrested for sexual offenses in New York State had no prior sex convictions. As a result, these people would not have been on the Sex Offender Registry (New York Sex Offender Management Grant, 2007).
  • Very few studies have attempted to investigate whether registering sex offenders helps to prevent new sex crimes:
    • One study looked at two groups of sex offenders in Washington State. One group was subject to community notification, while the other was not. Nineteen percent of the notification group committed another sex crime, compared to 22% for the others. Researchers determined this small difference could have been due to chance. However, sex offenders who were subjected to community notification were arrested more quickly for new sex crimes than those not publicly identified. For the notification group, 63% of the new sex offenses occurred in the jurisdiction where notification took place. This shows that even with notification, many repeat offenders did not go to another area where they would be less likely to be identified (Schram & Milloy, 1995).
    • Some studies have indicated that there was a decrease in the rate of sexual assault that appeared to occur around the same time community notification laws went into effect. Minnesota noted a decrease at about the same time they implemented community notification (Lobanov-Rostovsy, 2008). Sexual assault rates in New Jersey decreased between 1986 and 2005. However, the rates had been declining for years prior to community notification being put into effect (Veysey, Zgoba, & Dalessandro, 2007). Therefore, it is difficult to know if other factors besides the community notification may have contributed to the change.

Myth: All sex offenders are likely to commit another sex crime.
Fact: While any type of sexual recidivism is unacceptable, sexual recidivism rates vary by offender type and are lower than other types of crime.

Background: This is a controversial area, and different studies have produced different results. Some of these different results may depend on how recidivism is defined: new criminal charges, new charges or arrest for sexual offenses, any new conviction, any new charge, or on a lesser scale, parole violations or the number of court appearances (Langevin, Curnoe, Fedoroff, Bennett, Langevin, Peever, Pettica, & Sandhu, 2004). Recidivism rates are also dependent on factors such as the sample population being observed and the amount of follow-up time after their release into the community (Greenberg, Bradford, Firestone, & Curry, 2000). And, because not all sex offenses are reported, it is difficult to accurately measure the rate of all offenses (including those that may not have been reported). Early research into patterns of criminal offending revealed that a small number of offenders are responsible for a large proportion of criminal events. Wolfgang, Figlio and Sellin's (1972) classic study investigating delinquency in a birth cohort, 12.1% of offenders accounted for 84.5% of the total crime therefore, it is expected that among the sex offenders who have not recidivated, only a small number of pose the greatest risk.

  • Certain sub-types of sex offenders are at particularly high risk to reoffend. This would include individuals who exhibit high levels of sexual deviance (as measured by the penile plethysmograph or a dimension within the SVR-20) in combination with high levels of psychopathy (as measured by the Psychopathology Checklist-Revised [PCL-R]; Hare, 2004). Offenders with this combination have been shown to have sexual recidivism rates ranging between 41% (Olver & Wong, 2006) and 82% (Hildebrand, de Ruiter, & de Vogel, 2004).
  • The results of several studies indicate that other sub-types of sex offenders are less likely to recidivate:
    • One study across 15 states followed criminals for three years after they were released from prison to see if they were rearrested for any type of crime. As a group, 43% of sex offenders were rearrested for any crime, compared to 68% for criminals who were not sex offenders. For those originally convicted of violent crimes, the rate was 62%; for property crimes the rate was 74%; for drug crimes it was 67%; and for public-order crimes the rate of rearrest was 62% (Bureau of Justice Statistics, 2003).
    • In the same study, while 43% of sex offenders were rearrested, only 5% of the 9,691 sex offenders released from prison were rearrested for new sex crimes within three years (Bureau of Justice Statistics, 2003). Therefore, even when sex offenders were arrested again, most of these later arrests were not for a sexual crime.
    • Two reviews combining results of 82 studies involving more than 29,000 sex offenders from the U.S., Canada and Europe found recidivism rates for sex crimes to be 14% over 4 to 6 years. "Recidivism" in the various studies was defined differently. Usually it was either new arrest or a new conviction; but in some studies it was measured by reincarceration, parole violations, or self-reports. (Hanson & Bussière, 1998; Hanson & Morton-Bourgon, 2005).
    • Over a 15-year period, sex offense rearrest rates for all sex offenders averaged 24%. While this is not insignificant, it also indicates that 3 out of 4 sex offenders are not rearrested in 15 years (Harris & Hanson, 2004).
  • Harris and Hanson (2004) combined the results of several studies of 4,724 sex offenders, which are summarized as follows:
Sexual Recidivism by Type of Offender
Time Since Release Into Community
Type of Sex Offender 5 years 10 years 15 years
Rapists 14% 21% 24%
Incest offenders 6% 9% 13%
Girl victim child molesters 9% 13% 16%
Boy victim child molesters 23% 28% 35%
Overall, All Categories of Victims and Sex Crimes:
Offenders with no previous sexual conviction 10% 15% 19%
Offenders with a previous sexual conviction 25% 32% 37%

Note: In this study sexual recidivism was measured using the definitions from the original research reports: 5 studies used convictions, 4 studies used new charges (or a new conviction), and one sample used convictions, charges, and additional police information (Manitoba).

  • As noted above, because not all sex offenses are reported, it is difficult to accurately measure the true rate of repeat offenses (including reported and non-reported crimes). However, based on convictions for sex offenses, Hanson (2006) estimated the following rates of recidivism:
Estimated Sexual Recidivism Rates
Years of Follow-Up Observed
(Conviction Rate)
Estimated
Reoffense Rate
5 10-15 30-40
10 15-20 30-45
20 30-40 40-55

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