Recidivism Rates of Sexual Offenders up to 7 Years Later

Date01 September 2005
Published date01 September 2005
Subject MatterArticles
10.1177/0734016805284146Criminal Justice ReviewZgoba, Simon / Recidivism of Sex Offenders
Recidivism Rates of
Sexual Offenders
up to 7 Years Later
Does Treatment Matter?
Kristen M. Zgoba
New Jersey Department of Corrections
Leonore M. J. Simon
East Tennessee State University
This article critically reviews the evidence on sex offender treatment and subsequently provides
new estimates on short-term recidivism among sexual offenders released from prison in New
Jersey. The sample of male sex offenders is drawn from the Adult Diagnostic TreatmentCenter
(ADTC), New Jersey’s only sex-offender-specific prison, and the general population of nine
prisons within the state of New Jersey.The ADTC sample receives treatment while incarcerated
(n= 495), whereas no treatment is provided to the offenders in the general population sample
(n= 223). Overall, 33% of the total sample(N= 718) commits a new offense. Of the total sample,
14% commits a new sexual offense and 24% commits a newnonsexual offense. Significant dif-
ferences exist between the ADTC and the general population samples with respect to nonsexual
reoffending only. In the final analysis, treatment appears to matter in terms of a reduction in
recidivism but not in conventionally expected ways.
Keywords: sexual offense; treatment and recidivism
During the 1990s, states implemented a variety of policies that applied to sexual offend-
ers, including community registration, notification, and civil commitment (American
Psychiatric Association [APA], 1999; La Fond, 2005; Lalumiere, Harris, Quinsey, & Rice,
2005; Matson & Lieb, 1997; Prentky & Burgess, 2000; Winick & La Fond, 2003). Although
these policies varied in their designs, their primary goal was risk reduction, protecting the
public from sexual offenders. Treatment programs for sexual offenders, in concert, focus on
building impulse control capacities to effectively manage these behaviors and, by doing so,
reduce the risk of reoffending (Cornwell, Jacobi, & Witt, 1999). For this reason, the social
value of offender treatment programs is determined by a single outcome: the offender’slevel
Criminal Justice Review
Volume 30, Number 2
September 2005 155-173
© 2005 Georgia State University
Research Foundation, Inc.
hosted at
Author’sNote: This study was funded by the New Jersey Department of Corrections. The authors would like to
thank Commissioner Devon Brown, Dr. Douglas Gerardi, Mr. Donald Van Nostrand, Dr. Bonita Veysey, Ms.
Susan Estwan, and Dr.Travis Pratt for their invaluable contributions and support. Additionally,many thanks to the
anonymous reviewers.
of recidivism. But, recognizing that sexual offending may be an enduring tendency for some
offenders, reoffending behavior is monitored throughout time. Postincarceration studies
have examined patterns of reoffending at different time intervals, with the most common
being 1-year, 3-year, 5-year, and 10-year postrelease from prison (APA, 1999; Furby,
Weinrott,& Blackshaw, 1989; Hanson, Steffy,& Gauthier, 1993; Soothill & Gibbens, 1978).
The time-varying nature of reoffending behavior postincarceration is particularly critical
from the public’s perspective. Public attention has tended to focus on reoffending in the
period immediately following incarceration (e.g., 1 year, 3 years). This focus was partly
fueled by the 1989 disappearance of Jacob Wetterlingand the tragic death of Megan Kanka in
the 1990s (Baldau, 1998; Zgoba, 2004). The attention paid to these cases has led the public to
wonder whether correctional policies have allowed high-risk sexual offendersto be placed in
communities inappropriately or without appropriate safeguards. These concerns have stimu-
lated efforts to more comprehensively assess the reoffendingrisk of sexual offenders prior to
release and the development and implementation of new intensive monitoring and surveil-
lance programs for sexual offenders placed in the community.
Even with these initiatives in place, the public is wary of the risks associated with the
placement of sexual offenders in the community.The concern appears to be most elevated in
the first few years postrelease. The fact that these individuals have been carefully screened
for risk and are closely supervised does not allay concerns that this individual, known only as
a sexual offender, may harm a child or woman in the community. Assurances of risk assess-
ment and monitoring are unlikely to assuage public concern if it is not backed by strong, con-
sistent empirical evidence.
Nonetheless, the evidence necessary for informing and assuring the public and policy
makers is limited. As will be indicated throughout the course of this article, sex offender
treatment studies have been fraught with methodological problems, and their levelof efficacy
has not been definitively established (Bynum, 2001; La Fond, 2005; Winick & La Fond,
2003). It is the purpose of this study to address and reduce many of the methodological dilem-
mas that have overwhelmed earlier analyses, while adding new findings on sexual offender
reoffending patterns. This article explores the evidence and provides new results on shorter
term recidivism among male sexual offenders released from prison and the incremental
impact of treatment and additional years in the community on recidivism. The article begins
by describing patterns of male sexual offending behavior and the empirical evidence on
recidivism among sexual offenders postincarceration, including the evidence on treatment
effectiveness for sexual offending as measured by recidivism patterns throughout variable
time periods. The next section provides new estimates of recidivism rates for treated and
untreated sexual offenders released from incarceration from 1994 through 1997. The article
concludes with a discussion of the findings and their implications for thinking about when
treatment matters and what steps need to be taken to advance sex offender research in an
effort to better inform practice and public policy.This analysis builds on previous studies that
have found sex offender treatment to have an effecton nonsexual reoffending. Additionally,
the attention to the methodology strengthens what has historically been a weaker design.
156 Criminal Justice Review

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