The Numbers Guy at the Wall Street Journal recently tackled the issue of sex offender recidivism. Here is an excerpt from the post:
In debates over laws monitoring released sex offenders, it’s common to hear claims that they’re sure to commit more sex crimes. “‘What we’re up against is the kind of criminal who, just as soon as he gets out of jail, will immediately commit this crime again at least 90 percent of the time,” a California legislator told the New York Times in 1996. (Other examples of such rhetoric are collected here.) Fox News — like the Wall Street Journal owned by News Corp. — said of child molesters in 2005, “Not only are they almost certain to continue sexually abusing children, but some eventually kill their young victims.”
But as my print column this week points out, the numbers don’t bear this out. Recidivism rates vary widely depending on which crimes are counted, the timeframe of the studies, and whether repeat offenses are defined by convictions, arrests, or self-reporting....
This isn’t just an academic exercise. The conventional wisdom on sex-crime recidivism, coupled with high-profile sex crimes against children, has helped spur the spate of registry and neighbor-notification laws, even before they could be properly studied for their impact on recidivism rates. Several researchers, including Dr. Doren, say that residency-restriction laws may be counterproductive. Such a constraint “drives them out of their community, and leads to a lack of stability,” said Karen J. Terry, a criminologist at John Jay College in New York. “Those are some of the underlying conditions that caused them to abuse in the first place.” A consensus on how to measure recidivism, and determine its baseline rate, would help evaluate such laws.
I think it is great that this often misunderstood and misreported issue has received some real attention. I think the Numbers Guy does a pretty good job of showing some problems with studying this issue. Also, it is good to see some criticism of the unsupported recidivism rates that are often used by policymakers and the media. I wish the Numbers Guy had looked at the DOJ study which had the odd result of showing that non-sex-offenders actually had a higher rate of committing sex crimes upon release than did sex offenders. That seemingly anomalous result sometimes adds needed context to discussions of sex offender recidivism. It would also be nice to see a greater attention paid to breaking down sex offender sub-populations to assess those recidivism rates in context. Overall, though, I'm happy to see this issue getting a little more coverage. It's always nice to have the possibility that facts, not fear, will inform policy.
Update: Doug Berman adds his always insightful comments here.