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Opinion: Sex Offense Recidivism Is Rare, Shouldn't Determine Policy

Sun Sentinel

Editor's Note: This is a community contributor post.  The views expressed here are those of the author and not WLRN or WLRN-Miami Herald News.  

The crimes featured in a recent Sun Sentinel investigation were tragic. The newspaper found that in Florida, for every one sex offender who was committed to a sex predator treatment center, “nearly two others were released and then arrested on a sex charge.”

What the article does not highlight is that all of the sex offenders released from Florida prisons – 31,000 of them -- were screened for civil commitment over 14 years. 

Sexual Recidivism Rates

Of approximately 31,000 sex offenders who were assessed and released, there were 1,400 recidivists (new arrests for sexual crimes.) 

That statistic represents a 5 percent recidivism rate over 14 years.

That means for every one re-arrested, about 20 did not go on to commit new sex crimes.  In 95 percent of the cases, the screening team, evaluators, courts and program officials made the right call.

"Passing laws based on anomalous cases is not good social policy."

Of the sexual recidivists, there were 14 murders, accounting for about one percent of the recidivistic cases and less than 5 in 10,000 of all sex offenders released from prison.

While these egregious cases are heinous and unacceptable, they are rare events.

Sexual recidivism rates are lower than commonly believed, and are in fact lower than the overall recidivism rate in the state. In most cases the Sexually Violent Predator program did, in fact, do a good job of identifying the worst of the worst. The vast majority of sex offenders did not go on to commit any new sex crime, and most are strictly supervised in the community.

How To Prevent More Sex Offenses

A small but dangerous subgroup of sex offenders are at highest risk for violent re-offending. But passing laws based on anomalous cases is not good social policy.

We should take a close look at the 95 percent of offenders who did not re-offend, so we can identify and enhance the sex offender management and treatment strategies that are working well. 

The legislature is now considering mandatory minimum sentencing in response to the concern about violent re-offending by convicted sex offenders. However, as seen by the recidivism statistics when viewed as part of the bigger picture, mandatory sentences might prove to be a very costly response.  The sentencing enhancements will likely be unnecessary in the majority of cases.

"Today's perpetrators are often yesterday's victims."

Mandatory minimums also remove discretion from judges, encouraging plea bargains to non-sex crimes in some cases -- which means those offenders will not receive sex offender probation, monitoring, and treatment.

An alternative might be a risk assessment by a qualified practitioner prior to sentencing, which would offer valuable information to the judge and state attorney to aid in sentencing decisions.

Every dollar spent on hastily-passed sex offender policies is a dollar not spent on sexual assault victim services, child protection, and social programs designed to aid at-risk families.

The legislature is rightly concerned with another series of recent cases in which children died as a result of abuse or neglect. They should be equally concerned with the children who live through childhood trauma. We need to start thinking about early prevention and fund, not cut, social service programs for children and families. Today's perpetrators are often yesterday's victims.

Jill Levenson

Jill Levenson, Ph.D., LCSW, is an Associate Professor and Researcher at Lynn University. She is considered a national expert in sex crime policy analysis and has published over 80 articles about the treatment and management of sexual offenders.   

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