|Table of Contents|
|Implications for Public Policy|
|Implications for Mitigation|
|Implications for Aggravation|
Evaluating a study that shows recidivism risk of 7,225 sexual offenders post release for up to 25 years and how it relates to sentence mitigation, aggravation, and public policy.
In 2018 Hanson, Harris, Letourneau, Helmus and Thornton published an article in Psychology, Public Policy and Law that sought to empirically address the assumption made both by the public and policy makers that a person convicted of a sexual offense remains a high risk to the community over time.
The fundamental concept that this study is assessing is desistance. What is desistance? Though there is no single definition of desistance, when the term is applied to general criminal offending, it is often defined as “a marked reduction in the propensity to commit crime.” The authors of this study suggest that a workable threshold for distance in sexual offenders is the point when the person’s risk of committing a new offense is no different than the risk of spontaneous sexual offending committed by persons who have no history of committing sex crime but do have a history of non-sexual crime.
The study is a follow up to earlier research published in 2014 that showed that sexual recidivism risk declines over time (Hanson et. al., 2014). The current study looked at over 7000 individuals whose post release follow up time varied from 6 months to 31.5 years with an average follow up of 6.7 years.
The offenders in the study were assessed using the Static-99R, a standard actuarial assessment, which categorizes individuals’ risk from Level I (very low risk) to Level V (well above average). A person who committed a sex crime who is assessed at a Level I risk will have a 5 year risk of committing a new sex crime which is the same as those individuals with no history of committing a sex crime. In other words, they have no greater risk to commit a new sex crime than a general offender in the community. On the other end of the spectrum, a person assessed at a Level V risk has a 50 to 60% sexual recidivism rate.
Hanson et. al. used a statistical method called hazard rates to create the desistance model with post prison release follow up periods being divided into six-month intervals. The analysis yielded 105,347 observations that included 7,225 individuals. The longest follow up period was 25 years with 79 individuals being followed for this amount of time.
The overall sexual recidivism rates for the time frames were reported as 9.1% at 5 years; 13.3% at 10 years; 16.2% at 15 years; 18.2% at 20 years and 18.5% at 25 years. Though the cumulative rates increased over time, the hazard rates decreased. This study found that the largest probability of reoffending was in the first six months following release.
The authors used the Static 99R risk Level I as the desistance threshold. All Level I risk category individuals were at the desistance threshold when they were released from incarceration. A person who was assessed at a Risk Level II reached the desistance threshold after they were out in the community with no new offenses. Individuals assessed at average risk (Level III) reached desistance between 8 and 13 years in the community offense free.
The authors of this study indicate that within 10 to 15 years post release, the vast majority of people who have been convicted of a sex crime will be no more likely to commit another sex crime than people who have previously been convicted of non-sexual crimes.
The authors state that there is strong evidence for three things:
- Recidivism risk for people convicted of a sex crime varies widely
- Risk for reoffense declines over time
- Risk can be so low that it can be “indistinguishable from the rate of spontaneous sexual offenses for individuals with a history of crime but no history of a sexual crime.”
Implications for Public Policy
- Public protection policies (SORNA) should vary their responses based on actuarial risk assessment of the offender. As risk varies across person, offense, and time, a one size fits all application of registries is insufficient. One size fits all policies likely over manage individuals who are very low risk and perhaps under manage high risk individuals
- Public protection policies should implement reassessment. This study and others like it continue to show that risk levels decrease over time. A reassessment policy for offenders who are re-offense free in the community should be implemented.
- The data suggests that there should be a cap on the total duration of registration. There are very few individuals who present with more than negligible risk after 15 years. Therefore, registration times that exceed 15 years may be excessive and unnecessary.
Implications for Mitigation
- This study applies only to contact offenders and those other offenders for whom the STATIC-99R is applicable.
- The desistance of sexual offending could be used as an argument against long probation terms for offenders who are deemed a Level I or Level II risk. A Level II risk offender who has successfully been on probation without a re-offense for two to five years will reach desistance.
- This data may also be applicable to sexually violent predator hearings. A Level I offender is of no greater risk to the community than a non-sex offender who is released from incarceration.
Implications for Aggravation
- While there are no overt implications for sentence aggravation, it should be noted that recidivism is accounted for in research by known new offenses. It is widely and commonly accepted as fact that not all sexual offenses are discovered or reported. As such, there is a chance that new offenses for the research participants were not known.
- This research is applicable only to those individuals for whom the STATIC-99R can be used. It is not applicable to child pornography offenders as they cannot be assessed using the STATIC-99R.
Hanson, R.K., Harris, A.J.R., Letourneau, R., Helmus, L.M. & Thornton, D. (2018) Reduction in Risk Based on Time Offense-Free in the Community: Once a Sexual Offender, Not Always a Sexual Offender. Psychology, Public Policy, and Law, 24 (1), 48-63.