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What Do We Know About Sex Offenders?

By Dawn Doran, Acting Director, Office of Sex Offender Sentencing, Monitoring, Apprehending, Registering and Tracking
SOMAPI report authors Kevin Baldwin (from left), Dominique Simons, Roger Przybylski and Chris Labanov-Rostovsky present during the SMART Office National Symposium on Sex Offender Management and Accountability, July 26, 2016, in Kansas City, Missouri.

What comes to mind when you hear the phrase "sex offender"? We know that sex offenders, like the general criminal population, are not a monolithic group. Some sex offenders are pedophiles, some act out in response to their own abuse and some commit these crimes as part of an overall criminal lifestyle. While some may reoffend regardless of criminal justice intervention, some respond well to treatment and monitoring, and others may not need much in the way of intervention to avoid reoffending.

Recognizing the ever-growing body of research on sex offenders and sexual offending, the Department of Justice's Sex Offender Sentencing, Monitoring, Apprehending, Registering and Tracking (SMART) Office developed the Sex Offender Management Assessment and Planning Initiative (SOMAPI). SOMAPI summarizes the current state of sex offender management research and practice and recommends steps to bolster the evidence behind certain strategies used to contain and manage this population.

The SOMAPI report provides an overview of the extent of sexual abuse in the U.S., explains what we know about the causes of this behavior and how we classify sex offenders, gives recidivism rates for different groups of offenders and reviews what we know about assessing, treating and managing adults and juveniles who commit sex offenses. Adults and juveniles differ significantly in their capacity to weigh the consequences of decisions and control their behavior — as well as their likelihood to reoffend — so the report is divided into two sections: what we know about adults and what we know about juveniles who commit sex crimes.

Highlights from the SOMAPI report show that most sexual offenses are not reported to law enforcement and, therefore, most sex crimes are not accounted for in official arrest and conviction rates. However, we do know that different types of sex offenders have markedly different reoffense rates. Overall rates of sexual recidivism range from 5 percent after three years to 24 percent after 15 years.

Furthermore, the effectiveness of treatment and supervision strategies relies on our ability to accurately differentiate sex offenders based upon their risk to reoffend and their criminogenic needs — those characteristics, traits, problems or issues that contribute to an individual's criminal behavior. An overall takeaway from the report is that sex offenders vary in their recidivism risk levels, what factors contribute to their criminal behaviors and motives. Rather than following a one-size-fits-all approach, sex offender management policies and practices are more likely to be effective when they are tailored to the risks, needs and offense dynamics of individual sex offenders.

In an effort to share the most current research and best practices in the field, the SMART Office has released research briefs summarizing the report and continues to update content with the most current research studies.

For questions regarding the report, contact the SMART Office at [email protected].

The Sex Offender Sentencing, Monitoring, Apprehending, Registering and Tracking (SMART) Office, authorized by the Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act of 2006, assists with implementation of the Sex Offender Registration and Notification Act and provides assistance to criminal justice professionals across the entire spectrum of sex offender management activities needed to ensure public safety.

Date Published: August 15, 2017