The Magazine

Three Cheers for One Strike

There are solid reasons to worry about repeat offenses from child abusers.

Jun 17, 2002, Vol. 7, No. 39 • By JOHN J. DILULIO JR.
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THIS WEEK, nearly 300 Catholic bishops are gathering in Dallas to discuss whether parish priests who behave as pedophiles should lose their clerical collars after the first offense or be given one or more chances to repent and reform before being demoted, disgraced, or defrocked. Some bishops reportedly oppose any one-strike policy in favor of having each diocese use psychological evaluations in deciding, case by case, what to do with known perpetrators. Last month, the U.S. Supreme Court decided to hear arguments concerning Megan's laws, the neighbor-notification policies in 20 states named for Megan Kanka, the New Jersey child who was kidnapped, raped, and killed in 1994 by a paroled sex offender who had moved in across the street. Some justices are reportedly warm to the idea that, rather than automatically putting released child molesters on public sex-offender registries, they should hold individual hearings to determine which freed sex predators still pose a risk and which do not. Whatever either Catholic canon law or U.S. constitutional law may be interpreted to require in such cases, there is no firm empirical basis for the bishops' and justices' shared assumption that we know how to reform sex offenders or can predict which victimizers will harm children again and which will not. A few things we do know. Most sex offenders favor young prey. From the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics and other solid sources, we know that, of all sexual assault victims, an estimated 67 percent are under age 18, a third are under age 12, and 1 in 7 are age 6 or younger. Of all persons in prison for sexual assault, about 80 percent victimized a minor, and about 40 percent victimized a child age 12 or younger. Over half of sex offenders admitted to prisons have violated parole. The two largest recidivism studies ever conducted suggest that, within three years of exiting prison, about half of rapists and other sex offenders are rearrested.

For example, in 1994, 3,138 rapists were released from prison in 15 states. Before going to prison, they had racked up 21,638 arrest charges for sexual assaults and a host of other crimes. After three years back on the streets, they had added 2,444 arrests to their total. Overall, 46 percent were rearrested for a new crime, and nearly a fifth were rearrested for a new violent crime. Sex offender advocates concede that released rapists commit lots of serious crimes, but they stress that only a small fraction (2.5 percent in the latest large recidivism study) are rearrested for rape as opposed to other crimes. Compared with other parolees (for example, released burglars, three-quarters of whom are rearrested, and a quarter of whom are rearrested for burglary, within three years), sex offenders are less prone to be rearrested for the same offenses for which they were last imprisoned. True, but sex offenders, chronic or casual, need not specialize in sexual predation for one to worry about having them back on the streets unsupervised or in job or community settings that may tempt them. Prisoner self-report studies across several states find that convicted sex offenders, like other felons, commit more crimes of all kinds each year than they are ever arrested for or convicted of committing. Especially hard to detect and prosecute successfully are sexual crimes against minors. Still, it is not practical to talk, as some victims' rights advocates do, about incarcerating or tightly supervising most or all convicted sex offenders. For example, in 1994 alone (the latest year for which there are complete data), there were 167,550 rapes, plus another 148,610 attempted rapes and 116,590 other sexual assaults. Those crimes resulted in only 20,068 state felony convictions for rape, about 14,248 of which resulted in prison sentences. On average, offenders released from prison for rape in 1996 had served 5.5 years (53 percent of their maximum sentence), up from 5 years, 2 months (46 percent of their maximum sentence) for those released from prison in 1990. Neither, however, is it practical to assume that many or most sex-offender treatment programs work, or that we have psychological tests and other ways of reliably predicting which sex offenders remain dangerous after being treated and which do not. In the 1980s and early 1990s, many states expanded their prison-based and other programs for known sex offenders, but the rate at which released offenders returned to prison within three years was actually higher for rapists and other sexual assault felons released in 1994 than it was for those released in 1983. A book published this year, "Crime: Public Policies For Crime Control," features an essay by University of Cincinnati criminologist Francis T. Cullen, whose research argues that certain criminal rehabilitation programs really do work.