Are Civilly Detained and Committed Sexually Violent Persons Released After Age 60 Low Risk?

Published date01 July 2021
Date01 July 2021
Subject MatterArticles
CRIMINAL JUSTICE AND BEHAVIOR, 2021, Vol. 48, No. 7, July 2020, 981 –998.
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© 2020 International Association for Correctional and Forensic Psychology
Sand Ridge Research Unit
Sand Ridge Research Unit
Innovenn, Inc.
Forensic Assessment, Training, & Research, LLC
Older age is a well-established protective factor against sexual recidivism. However, research on the effects of aging in
individuals considered for civil commitment as sexually violent persons (SVPs) is limited. The current study investigated 53
such individuals released after age 60: 15 were released following dismissal of the civil commitment petition, and 38 were
discharged following civil commitment. Recidivism outcomes, including details of the release environment, were examined
and the groups were compared on recidivism risk and age-related factors. The sexual recidivism rate across both groups was
7.5% over an average follow-up of about 9 years. The rate of sexually violent offenses was 3.8%. Results suggest that age-
related protective effects apply to older SVPs. However, the groups differed in total time institutionalized and release environ-
ments. Findings highlight the potential impact of release type and environments on observed recidivism rates. Risk
management implications for older individuals released from SVP programs are considered.
Keywords: sexually violent persons; civil commitment; recidivism; risk; age; supervision
Aging is associated with decreased criminal behavior, and sexual offending is no excep-
tion (Farrington, 1986; Hanson, 2002). The mitigating effect of aging for sexual recidi-
vism has been studied for decades (e.g., Barbaree & Blanchard, 2008; Hanson & Bussiere,
1998; Thornton, 2006). In a large multisite study, individuals with a history of sexual
offending released over age 60 had a recidivism rate of just 3.8%, whereas the overall rate
across all age bands was 17.5% (Hanson, 2002). Consequently, the relevance of an indi-
vidual’s age at release has been emphasized in actuarial assessments of sexual reoffense
AUTHORS’ NOTE: The views expressed in this article are those of the authors and not necessarily those
of the Wisconsin Department of Health Services. Correspondence concerning this article should be
addressed to Gina Ambroziak, Sand Ridge Research Unit, 301 Troy Drive, Building 14, Madison, WI 53704;
972448CJBXXX10.1177/0093854820972448Criminal Justice and BehaviorAmbroziak et al. / SEXUALLY VIOLENT PERSONS RELEASED AFTER AGE 60
risk. In the original Static-99 (Hanson & Thornton, 1999), the age item consisted of two age
categories: individuals released prior to age 25 and those released after. Subsequent research
found this dichotomization overestimated recidivism risk for individuals released after age
60. Age-related scoring criteria were revised for the Static-99R, substantially improving
recidivism estimates associated with release after age 60, even after controlling for other
static risk factors (Helmus et al., 2012).
Roughly, 85% of individuals released after their 60th birthday fell into the low risk
Static-99R category in the Helmus et al. study. This is relevant because aging individuals
from highly select samples, such as those considered for civil commitment as sexually vio-
lent persons (SVPs), may manifest higher risk for reoffending than individuals representa-
tive of routine normative samples. Potential differences between older individuals with
more recent histories of sexual offending (due to release after serving their index offense
sentences) and those released at older ages following lengthier periods of institutionaliza-
tion (due to extended confinement under civil commitment laws) have not been examined.
Protective effects of advanced age at the time of release may, or may not, apply to older
individuals identified as SVPs warranting extended confinement under civil commitment
In the 1990s, many states enacted modern civil commitment statutes to manage and treat
individuals at a high risk to reoffend due to predisposing mental disorders (Meloy et al.,
2007). Individuals committed under such statutes are referred to as Sexually Violent
Persons/Predators. As of 2019, nearly 5,000 individuals were civilly committed as SVPs
across 16 programs that responded to an annual survey of SVP programs (Schneider et al.,
2019). Variations in structure and statutory criteria exist among programs, but civil commit-
ment as an SVP typically requires three criteria to be met: (a) history of a qualifying sexual
offense, (b) diagnosis of a mental disorder that predisposes the individual to offend sexu-
ally, and (c) a high likelihood of reoffending sexually. In Wisconsin, the statutory threshold
is “more likely than not to reoffend” and is operationally defined as a reoffense risk greater
than 50%. Multistage procedures are used to screen and manage individuals identified as
possible SVPs. Initial processes cast a wide net, considering all individuals with qualifying
offenses. Predisposing mental disorders and reoffense risks are evaluated at subsequent
stages, narrowing the number identified as potentially meeting commitment criteria (Sandler
& Freeman, 2017). Typically less than 3% of individuals initially screened are civilly com-
mitted (e.g., Boccaccini et al., 2009).
Use of systematic screening procedures and strict statutory criteria identify individuals
for SVP commitment who are distinguishable from others with past histories of sexual
offenses in notable ways. Consideration for SVP commitment is often based on factors
like high actuarial risk scores and indicators of sexual deviance (Boccaccini et al., 2009;
Freeman & Sandler, 2012; Levenson, 2004; Lu et al., 2015). Paraphilic disorders are
prevalent in SVP populations (Elwood et al., 2010; Levenson, 2004) and may be indica-
tive of entrenched traits that are less amenable to protective aging effects (Diagnostic and
Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders [5th ed.; DSM-5]; American Psychiatric
Association [APA], 2013; Fazio et al., 2017; Seto, 2012). Compared with other sexual
offending samples, individuals committed under SVP statutes have high densities of

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