2011-11-25 / Top Stories

Sex Offender Myths And Facts

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. 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 percent 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 percent of victims under the age of 17, and 73 percent of victims age 18 and older, were assaulted by someone they knew. Where the victim was a child, 34 percent of offenders were family members and 59 percent 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 percent were male (New York State Sex Offender Management Grant, 2007). Therefore, we estimate that 3 percent were female.

As of December 2007, about 2 percent (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 percent of sex offenders were sexually abused as children, 70 percent were not. Myth: Adolescents do not commit sex offenses. Fact: Adolescents represent a fair number of sex offenders.

Roughly 1,100 (8 percent) 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 percent of sexual assault offenders were under the age of 18. About 4 percent were under the age of 12. 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 percent of cases. This varies by the relationship to the offender, with 56 percent of offenses involving strangers being reported, and only 28 percent of offenses involving non-strangers being reported.

Eleven percent of child rape victims reported the crime, though not necessarily to the police (Smith, Letourneau, Saunders, Kilpatrick, Resnick & Best, 2000); 2-8 percent 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). 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 timeconsuming; 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). 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.

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. 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 percent 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).

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 percent of offenders accounted for 84.5 percent of the total crime, therefore, it is expected that among the sex offenders who have not recidivated, only a small number of them pose the greatest risk.

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