Earlier this year, I talked to the press spokesperson for a state senator who was proposing a new ban targeting those on the state’s sex offender registry. I asked her about the purpose of the legislation–why focus on this group of ex-offenders? The question seemed to catch her off guard: “Oh! Well these people reoffend at very high rates compared with others!” she replied.
It’s not just that the statement is wrong as it relates to other groups of ex-offenders–we have more than 20 years of solid data to show that recidivism rates among registrants are lower than re-offense rates for nearly every other population of ex-inmates. It’s also that thousands of offenders have recidivism rates as low as the first-time offense rate among the population at large.
Here’s a key sentence from a 2013 study led by recidivism researcher Karl Hanson: “Previous large sample studies have found that the likelihood of an ‘out of the blue’ sexual offence to be committed by offenders with no history of sexual crime is 1% to 3%: 1.1% after 4 years (Duwe, 2012); 1.3% after 3 years (Langan, Schmitt, & Durose, 2003); 3.2% after 4.5 years (Wormith, Hogg, & Guzzo, 2012).”
So how does that 1-3% compare with the rate for someone convicted of a sex crime who hasn’t reoffended? Hanson and company looked at a sample of almost 8000 ex-offenders to get the answer–among those who hadn’t reoffended after 10 years, the subsequent re-offense rate was 2.8 percent. In other words, those who haven’t reoffended in 10 years since they’ve been out are no different than the rest of the population in terms of risk.
That, of course, is a bombshell. Hanson and company draw this laconic, but explosive, conclusion: “The current findings suggest that certain long-term supervision and monitoring policies (e.g., lifetime registration) may be being applied to a substantial number of individuals with a low risk for sexual offending.”
In other words: Any registry or other restriction, any condition of probation or Internet use, any monitoring regime that’s applied to someone who’s been offense-free for 10 years represents demonstrated nonsense, arbitrary discrimination, and pointless cruelty.
Our current laws, of course, do all of that and more.
Perhaps the best line of the study, then, comes on page 1. It has nothing to do with offenders. Instead it trains the lens in the other direction–society: “The reasons that sexual offenders are treated differently from other offenders are not fully known,” they write.
Why indeed do members of the public believe that official mistreatment, exclusion, and abuse are justified when directed at this group of offenders? Now that is an area for fruitful research.