Collateral Damage in America's War on Sex Crimes

Research in Brief: “Bad Data–How Government Agencies Distort Statistics on Sex-Crime Recidivism”

The number of brilliant and energetic researchers doing ground-breaking work on sex crime and punishment just keeps growing. Some of these experts seem to write at the speed that the rest of us read. To help us keep up, this week I’m launching the first of a periodic series of research briefs, each giving the key takeaways of a recent study.

Today it’s Alissa Ackerman and Marshall Burns’ new article Bad Data–How Government Agencies Distort Statistics on Sex-Crime Recidivism in the spring 2016 Justice Policy Journal. Their analysis focuses on how sex offender recidivism data have been reported in key federal government and California government reports between 1988 and 2014.

Here are the highlights.

A key federal report uses a “breathtaking sleight of hand” to make reoffense data for those convicted of rape appear high. Data from a 1989 Bureau of Justice Statistics recidivism report showed that the lowest recidivism rates were for people who had been imprisoned for murder (about 7 percent) and rape (about 8 percent). For all other types of crime, the rates were more than twice as high (18 percent). But BJS applied a special calculation to derive a “BJS recidivism rate.” Under the adjustment, the actual statistics were turned upside down. Those committing a rape were reported as having the highest reoffense rate–10.5 percent, more than double any other category. The BJS never explained why its calculation should be considered a valid measure of recidivism. In a 2014 BJS report, the “BJS recidivism rate” has disappeared without explanation.

Those arrested for crimes other than rape commit far more rapes than do those detained for rape. The data in the 1989 report show that a rape was almost five times more likely to be committed by someone originally convicted of something other than a rape than by someone who’d been to prison for rape. Released robbers have higher recidivism rate than rapists and are responsible for a far greater number of violent crimes, including rapes. But the U.S. government has never published a report on recidivism among robbers.

Two key federal reports imply that data for violent sex offenders apply to all sex offenders. In 2002 and 2014 BJS recidivism reports, the terms “sex offenders” and “sex offenses” refer exclusively to violent sex offenders. The reports falsely infer that the data reported in these studies apply to anyone on sex offender registries, which of course include thousands of nonviolent offenders.

A California report concludes that its sex offender registry works—but the underlying data demonstrate the reverse. Data in a 1988 California Department of Justice report on recidivism showed that 87 percent of new sex crimes in the state were committed by people whose original conviction was for something other than a sex crime. None of those included in the 87 percent are listed on the state’s registry. Yet in assessing the usefulness of the registry, the report’s authors ignored these data. Instead, they surveyed law enforcement agencies about their views of the registry. Unsurprisingly, 83 percent of officers surveyed “believe that the sex registration process aids in the apprehension of suspected sex crime offenders.” The data in the report suggest that belief is simply wrong. Yet the officers’ belief was cited a key part of the report’s conclusion that the state’s registry is effective.

A California report lumps technical parole violations with new sex crimes, making recidivism appear sky high. A 2010 California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation report found a recidivism rate of 65 percent for those convicted of sex crimes. But 86 percent of the new crimes were actually technical parole violations. As a state corrections official who didn’t want to be named admitted to Ackerman and Burns: “…many sex offender parolees have been returned to custody due to having a low battery on their GPS unit [and] are showing up in the recidivism rates. That being said, sex offenders still show one of the lowest rates of recidivism of any other type of offender.”

Legislators used the distorted data in these reports to enact harsher sex crime laws that are still on the books. Data in the BJS reports have been cited in legislative proposals and in amicus briefs to the U.S. Supreme Court. And the 1988 California DoJ report was used by a California Senate committee to propose that people in custody or on parole or probation should be ineligible to seek certificates of rehabilitation relieving them from the requirement to register.

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