Sex Offender Risk, Recidivism, and Policy
Kristi L. Greenberg University of New Haven
Sex offenders and their rates of recidivism are often at the center of media and legislators’ attention, in efforts to maintain public safety from what are perceived by many to be the most heinous of offenders. As a result, sex offender management, civil confinement, community notification, and registration laws have been enacted in many jurisdictions across the globe. These policies stem from “good intentions to enhance public safety, [but] current punitive-oriented policies targeting sex offenders have been shown to yield null effects on sex offender recidivism” (Manchak and Fisher, 2017, p. 2). This, coupled with the myriad of challenges registered sex offenders (RSOs) face because of their public label, amounts to a disservice for offenders and victims. Socia (2014) highlights this by noting that “criminal justice scholars have been skeptical of the utility of residence restrictions for some time because study after study has suggested that these policies are ineffective and may be resulting in collateral consequences for both RSOs and community members” (p. 179). It therefore becomes imperative to examine what is known about sex offender recidivism, risk assessment, and the factors influencing sex offender policies.
This paper discusses the employment and housing barriers faced by RSOs, and how those barriers impact public safety. Current research that examines RSO risk levels, how they are obtained, and how they are managed is reviewed. The position that research indicates current sex offender policy, albeit effective at identifying high-risk individuals, is highly ineffective at aiding successful reintegration is supported. These policy gaps create unsafe communities and force some RSOs to commit non-sexual crimes to survive their new environments.
It is widely known that criminal convictions result in more than periods of incarceration and community supervision for offenders. Barriers to reentry, such as employment and housing difficulties, are heightened when examining experiences of RSOs. The public nature of registries as well as community notification laws advertise an offender’s status. This label prohibits RSOs from having access to suitable employment and housing options (Evans and Cubellis, 2015).
Due to legal as well as common-sense restrictions based on the nature of a particular offender’s crime, employment prospects are limited. Offenders who are under community supervision are almost always required to obtain employment. The legal condition of their supervision coupled with the often-scarce number of suitable jobs, even for those who are actively trying to follow their parole and probation conditions, means they may be violated and returned to jail or prison for failure to maintain employment (Dum, Socia, & Rydberg, 2017).
It is a basic necessity for all to have shelter, which is also often a mandated requirement of community supervision. Housing options for RSOs typically include homeless shelters, due to areas that fall within the address restriction guidelines being out of reach financially (Terry, 2006; Socia, 2011). Housing difficulties often place RSOs in areas that “might lack adequate support structures that are conducive to successful reentry and rehabilitation, and recidivism rates (sexual or otherwise) might increase as a result” (Socia, 2011, p. 379). Furthermore, housing that is attainable by RSOs is commonly in disrepair and presents deplorable living conditions (Dum et al., 2017). Research has consistently found that address restrictions placed upon RSOs “do not reduce sexual offending and negatively impact the[ir] successful reentry” (Socia, 2014, p. 183).
Compounding the issue of reintegration is the stigmatization faced by RSOs. Registration and community notification laws have made the public more aware of RSOs, often grouping them together as being violent and dangerous, regardless of their individual convictions or risk levels (Evans and Cubellis, 2015). RSOs experience stigmatization in every aspect of their lives. The public notification labels them to employers and neighbors, and in turn, family and friends are given a secondary label if they still associate with the RSO (Evans and Cubellis, 2015). The inability of some to cope with this label only adds to the challenges for RSOs in the community.
Despite the availability of this research, policy makers are often reluctant to propose changes to these laws, for fear of being perceived as ‘soft’ on crime. Often “when these policies are repealed, it has historically been a result of court rulings rather than a proactive decision by policy makers” (Socia, 2014, p. 182). This reluctance to listen to empirical knowledge needs to be addressed by researchers and policy makers alike. Public safety for RSOs, victims, and community members is affected by a traditional reluctance to evaluate what really works.
There have been a number of recent studies conducted that further this body of knowledge on RSOs, their risk levels, recidivism, and stigmatization. In New York State, Sandler and Freeman (2017) evaluated the sex offender civil management law, otherwise known as SOMTA (Sex Offender Management and Treatment Act), to assess its ability to accurately identify higher-risk offenders. SOMTA “became effective April 13, 2007 [and] created a process for the civil management of sex offenders who A) were convicted of a qualifying sexual offense, B) are in the custody of a designated agency, and C) have been found to suffer from a mental abnormality that makes them particularly high risk to sexually reoffend” (Sandler and Freeman, 2017, p. 915).
A formal review process begins six-months prior to an offender’s pending release date, when the Office of Mental Health (OMH) determines through a multi-stage review process, if an individual offender should be recommended for civil management. Sandler and Freeman’s (2017) sample consisted of 6,494 adult male sex offenders from SOMTA’s enactment date through October 31, 2014 who, although referred, did not receive civil management. The findings indicated that the process is successfully identifying lower-risk offenders not in need of the second phase of review or civil management, as well as accurately identifying higher-risk offenders. The total number of offenders that were rearrested for a sexual offense after their civil management review was 207, 3.2% of the study sample (Sandler and Freeman, 2017). Furthermore, it was found that offenders who “were recommended for civil management but who did not receive it were rearrested for a sexual offense at a significantly higher rate than those offenders screened out by OMH (11.1% compared with 3.1%)” (Sandler and Freeman, 2017, p. 928).
One of the tools utilized for the SOMTA review is the Static-99R risk assessment (Sandler and Freeman, 2017), which is one of many utilized in the field of sex offender risk screening. Duwe (2017) examined the Minnesota Sex Offender Screening Tool-4 (MnSOST-4) for its ability to accurately predict sex offender recidivism, in comparison to previous versions of the MnSOST and the Static-99. An important note is the varying operationalization of recidivism between Duwe’s (2017) study and that of Sandler and Freeman (2017). In New York, recidivism was measured by an offender’s rearrest for a sexual offense in the five-year follow-up period. However, when assessing the MnSOST-4, recidivism was measured by reconviction for a sexual offense within four years of release from prison and excluded hands-off offenses such as child pornography (Sandler and Freeman, 2017; Duwe, 2017). This is an important distinction considering it is widely known that “sexual crime is the most underreported offense” (Terry, 2006, p. 14) and that “… rearrests only make up approximately 5.0% of all sexual arrests” (Sandler and Freeman, 2017).
Duwe’s (2017) sample consisted of 5,745 sex offenders that were released from Minnesota prisons between 2003 and 2012. He found that 2.3% of the overall sample were recidivists. Of the original 5,745 in the sample tested with the MnSOST-4, 1,604 of them had also been assessed by the Static-99. Within this subset, there were 241 individuals who were deemed to be the highest risk offenders. Of these, it was discovered that the Static-99 would identify 13 recidivists, or 42%, and the MnSOST-4 would predict 18, or 58% of the recidivists. Ultimately, Duwe (2017) concluded that the MnSOST-4 was better in its predictive ability than both the Static-99 and the MnSOST-R. Perhaps the most critical point Duwe (2017) makes is that “prior to using an assessment on an offender population, the assessment’s predictive performance must be evaluated on that population” (p. 21). In New York, the Static-99R in conjunction with other assessments is working well to identify high-risk offenders. In Minnesota, the MnSOST-4 is doing well assisting with the identification of risk levels for sex offenders and involuntary civil commitment.
The key component to any legislative mandate in regard to sex offenders is its ability to maintain public safety, but also it should aim to aid the offenders it targets. As shown by Sandler and Freeman (2017) and Duwe (2017), risk assessments used with formalized review processes have been beneficial in identifying high-risk offenders, recommending treatment plans, and providing constitutionally compliant plans for civil commitment if necessary, as outlined in Kansas v. Crane (2002) and Kansas v. Hendricks (1997) (Sandler and Freeman, 2017). Often though, these policies do little to aid the offenders themselves, because of the public perception about their crimes.
Manchak and Fisher (2017) conducted an exploratory study that aimed to identify factors that influence support for sex offender policy. Their study involved surveying 253 undergraduate and graduate students at a Midwestern university. The participants were randomly assigned to eight vignettes, but each answered the same survey questions. Their results showed that participants who held a belief that existing sex offender policies enhance public safety goals were less likely to believe that these policies caused harm to the sex offenders. The participants who held this belief were also more likely to support sex offender policy generally. Additionally, those who had “increased perceptions of riskiness and greater social distancing attitudes [were] significantly associated with increased support for the application of sex offender policy” (Manchak and Fisher, 2017, p. 10). Manchak and Fisher (2017) also found that those who expressed greater support for sex offender policy placed emphasis on an offender’s criminal history, age of the victim, and their overall perceived riskiness. They found that the participants’ personal demographics, political orientation, and prior knowledge about sex offenders had little impact on their support for sex offender policies.
Policy Implications and Future Research
RSOs are publicly labeled and stigmatized by registration and community notification laws (Evans and Cubellis, 2015). Legislators are often reluctant to propose changes to current sex offender policies as a result of their constituent bases showing a strong support for these policies (Manchak and Fischer, 2017). Despite their known ineffectiveness, legislators will do what needs to be done to maintain their votes rather than supporting what is empirically sound. In some instances, as Manchak and Fisher (2017) note, “these policies may not only be ineffective, but they can also actually backfire” (p. 3). For example, the residency restrictions placed on offenders makes it incredibly difficult to find suitable housing, which can increase an offender’s risk of recidivism and decreases their overall ability to reintegrate into society (Manchak and Fisher, 2017; Socia, 2014).
Looking forward, more needs to be done to educate the public on the realities of current sex offender policies. The notion that registries and address restrictions protect the public from future offenses in inherently flawed. Policy makers should examine the possibility of removing address restrictions and what, if any, impact that would have on offenders being able to secure housing. Employment programs and incentives for prospective employers should also be examined. If an offender can maintain stable employment and housing, they are less likely to recidivate for any type of offense, not only sexual offenses. Research on these possible changes will provide a foundation for policy makers to consider this change. Studying what means are necessary to educate the public on factual information regarding sex offender policy versus their perceptions based on stigma will also be beneficial toward changing policies. Offenders who are not deemed high-risk by the established effective measures in each jurisdiction and subsequently are able to find housing, work, and remain near their social support systems are less likely to reoffend, which in turn creates safer communities.
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Terry, K. J. (2006). Sexual Offenses and Offenders: Theory, Practice and Policy. Belmont, CA: Thomson Wadsworth.
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