We address the high variability in sex offender recidivism rates by examining several of the critical methodological differences that underlie this variability. We used a dataset on 251 sex offenders (136 rapists and 115 child molesters) who were discharged over a 25-year period to examine changes in recidivism as a function of changes in dispositional definition of reoffense (e.g., arrest or conviction), changes in the domain of criminal offenses that are considered, and changes in the length of exposure time. The data indicate that: (a) both rapists and child molesters remain at risk to reoffend long after their discharge, in some cases 15–20 years after discharge; (b) there was a marked underestimation of recidivism when calculating a simple proportion (%) consisting of those who were known to have reoffended during the follow-up period, and (c) there was a marked underestimation of recidivism when the criterion was based on conviction or imprisonment. Forensic, clinical and policy implications of this high variability are discussed.
This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution.
Barbaree, H. E. (1996, November). Evaluating the efficacy of sex offender treatment: Realistic and constructive alternatives to optimism and pessimism. Paper presented at the meeting of the Association for Treatment of Sexual Abusers, Chicago, IL.
Christiansen, K. O., Elers-Nielsen, M., Le Maire, L., & Sturup, G. K. (1965). Recidivism among sexual offenders. In K. O. Christiansen (Ed.), Scandinavian studies in criminology (pp. 55–85). London: Tavistock.
Cox, D. R. (1972). Regression models and life tables. Journal of the Royal Statistical Society B, 34, 187–220.
Furby, L., Weinrott, M. R., & Blackshaw, L. (1989). Sex offender recidivism: A review. Psychological Bulletin, 105, 3–30.
Gibbens, T. C. N., Soothill, K. L., & Way, C. K. (1978). Sibling and parent-child incest offenses. British Journal of Criminology, 18, 40–52.
Grubin, D., & Prentky, R. A. (1993). Sexual psychopathy laws. Criminal Behavior, and Mental Health, 3, 381–392.
Hall, G. C. N., & Proctor, W. C. (1987). Criminological predictors of recidivism in a sexual offender population. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 55, 111–112.
Hanson, R. K., & Bussiere, M. T. (1996). Predictors of sexual offender recidivism: A meta-analysis (Public Works and Government Services Document, Cat. No. JS4-1/1996-4E). Ottawa: Ministry of the Solicitor General of Canada.
Hanson, R. K., Scott, H., & Steffy, R. A. (1995). A comparison of child molesters and nonsexual criminals: Risk predictors and long-term recidivism. Journal of Research in Crime and Delinquency, 32, 325–337.
Hanson, R. K., Steffy, R. A., & Gauthier R. (1993). Long-term recidivism of child molesters. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 61, 646–652.
Harris, C. M., Kaylan, A. R., & Maltz, M. D. (1981). Recent advances in the statistics of recidivism measurement. In J. A. Fox (Ed.), Models in quantitative criminology (pp. 61–79). New York: Academic Press.
Harris, C. M., & Moitra, S. (1978). Improved statistical techniques for the measurement of recidivism. Journal of Research in Crime and Delinquency, 15, 194–213.
Jenkins, W. O., Barton, M. C., de Valera, E. K., DeVine, M. D., Witherspoon, A. D., & Muller, J. B. (1972). The measurement and prediction of criminal behavior and recidivism: The environmental deprivation scale (EDS) and the maladaptive behavior record (MBR) (Rehabilitation Research Foundation, Contract No. 82-01-69-06, Manpower Administrations). Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Labor.
Jenkins, W. O., DeVine, M. D., de Valera, E. K., Muller, J. B., Nichols, W. C., & Ray, S. O. (1975). The behavioral demography of the young adult male offender (Rehabilitation Research Foundation, Manpower Administration). Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Labor.
Klein, S. P., & Caggiano, M. N. (1986). The prevalence, predictability, and policy implications of recidivism. Santa Monica, CA: The Rand Corporation.
Knight, R. A. (1992). The generation and corroboration of a taxonomic model for child molesters. In W. O'Donohue & J. H. Geer (Eds.), The sexual abuse of children: Theory, research, and therapy (Vol. 2, pp. 24–70). Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.
Knight, R. A. (in press). Validation of a typology for rapists. In W. L. Marshall & J. Frenken (Eds.), Sex offender research and treatment: State-of-the-art in North America and Europe. London: Sage.
Knight, R. A., & Prentky, R. A. (1996, August). A twenty-five year follow-up of rapists and child molesters. Symposium presented at the meeting of the XXVIth meeting of the International Congress of Psychology, Montreal, Canada.
Maltz, M. D. (1984). Recidivism. Orlando, FL: Academic Press.
Marques, J. K., Day, D. M., Nelson, C., & West, M. A. (1993). Findings and recommendations from California's experimental treatment program. In G. C. N. Hall, R. Hirschman, J. R. Graham, & M. S. Zaragoza (Eds.), Sexual aggression: Issues in etiology, assessment, and treatment (pp. 197–214). Washington, D.C.: Taylor & Francis.
Miller, D. (1984). A survey of recidivism research in the United States and Canada (Publication #13709). Massachusetts Department of Correction.
Pithers, W. (1990). Relapse prevention with sexual aggressors. In W. L. Marshall, D. R. Laws, & H. E. Barbaree (Eds.), Handbook of sexual assault (pp. 343–361). New York: Plenum Press.
Prentky, R. A. (1990). Sexual violence. Review Commissioned by the Panel on the Understanding and Control of Violent Behavior, Committee on Law and Justice, National Research Council. Washington, D.C.: National Academy of Sciences.
Prentky, R. A., & Burgess, A. W. (1990). Rehabilitation of child molesters: A cost-benefit analysis. American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 60, 108–117.
Prentky, R. A., & Knight, R. A. (1991). Identifying critical dimensions for discriminating among rapists. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 59, 643–661.
Prentky, R. A., Knight, R. A., & Lee, A. S. (1997). Risk factors associated with recidivism among extrafamilial child molesters. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 65, 141–149.
Prentky, R. A., Knight, R. A., Lee, A. S., & Cerce, D. D. (1995). Predictive validity of lifestyle impulsivity for rapists. Criminal Justice and Behavior, 22, 106–128.
Quinsey, V. L. (1981). The long-term management of the mentally abnormal offender. In S. J. Hucker, C. D. Webster, & M. Bar-Aron (Eds.), Mental disorder and criminal responsibility (pp. 137–155). Toronto: Butterworths.
Quinsey, V. L., Lalumiere, M. L., Rice, M. E., & Harris, G. T. (1995a). Predicting sexual offenses. In J. C. Campbell (Ed.), Assessing dangerousness: Violence by sexual offenders, batterers, and child abusers (pp. 114–137). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
Quinsey, V. L., Rice, M. E., & Harris, G. T. (1995b). Actuarial prediction of sexual recidivism. Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 10, 85–105.
Rice, M. E. (1997). Violent offender research and implications for the criminal justice system. American Psychologist, 52, 414–423.
Rice, M. E., & Harris, G. T. (1997). Cross-validation and extension of the Violence Risk Appraisal Guide for child molesters and rapists. Law and Human Behavior, 21, 231–241.
Rice, M. E., Harris, G. T., & Quinsey, V. L. (1990). A follow-up of rapists assessed in a maximum security psychiatric facility. Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 5, 435–448.
Rice, M. E., Quinsey, V. L., & Harris, G. T. (1991). Sexual recidivism among child molesters released from a maximum security psychiatric institution. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 59, 381–386.
Romero, J. J., & Meyer-Williams, L. M. (1985). Recidivism among convicted sex offenders: A 10-year follow-up study. Federal Probation, 49, 58–64.
Schmidt, P., & Witte, A. D. (1988). Predicting recidivism using survival models. New York: Springer-Verlag.
Soothill, K. L., & Gibbens, T. C. N. (1978). Recidivism of sexual offenders: A reappraisal. British Journal of Criminology, 18, 267–276.
Soothill, K. L., Jack, A., & Gibbens, T. C. N. (1976). Rape: A 22-year cohort study. Medicine, Science and Law, 16, 62–69.
Tracy, F., Donnelly, H., Morgenbesser, L., & MacDonald, D. (1983). Program evaluation: Recidivism research involving sex offenders. In J. G. Greer & I. R. Stuart (Eds.), The sexual aggressor (pp. 198–213). New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold.
Waldo, G., & Griswold, D. (1979). Issues in the measurement of recidivism. In L. Sechrest, S. O. White, & E. D. Brown (Eds.), The rehabilitation of criminal offenders: Problems and prospects (pp. 225–250). Washington, D.C.: National Academy of Sciences.
Weiner, B. A. (1985). Legal issues raised in treating sex offenders. Behavioral Sciences and the Law, 3, 325–340.
Witt, P. H., DelRusso, J., Oppenheim, J., & Ferguson, G. (1996). Sex offender risk assessment and the law. Journal of Psychiatry and Law, 1996, 343–377.
About this article
Cite this article
Prentky, R.A., Lee, A.F.S., Knight, R.A. et al. Recidivism Rates Among Child Molesters and Rapists: A Methodological Analysis. Law Hum Behav 21, 635–659 (1997). https://doi.org/10.1023/A:1024860714738
- Exposure Time
- Social Psychology
- High Variability
- Policy Implication
- Methodological Difference