The 2009 Butner study set a template for legislation and litigation around “sex offender” recidivism, leading people to assume that the rate of re-offense/recidivism is high – not only in absolute terms but even higher than the rate for other offenses. However, subsequent findings have debunked this.
“Tough on Sex Offenders” promises and actions rely on debunked data
Because of this erroneous assumption, candidates for election or re-election to public office have used pledges of being “tough on sex offenders who put our communities at risk” to garner votes. Unfortunately, few have dared to contradict this ‘received wisdom’ for fear of being soft on crime, particularly if it means being gentle on those accused of sexual offenses.
The fields of law enforcement, sociology, and psychology have a term for this: moral panic.
Moral Panic: A mass movement based on the false or exaggerated perception that some cultural behavior or group of people is dangerously deviant and threatens society’s values and interests. Moral panics are generally fuelled by media coverage of social issues.(Oxford English Dictionary)
It is easier and more convenient, politically, to pander to a public immersed in an environment of fear, especially when bolstering such fears with ignorance. Even the curious public will see that legislators and court cases refer to the original study and other outdated and disproven data in their efforts, thus legitimating and perpetuating the situation.
Debunking the “Higher Risk of Reoffending” Myth
Fortunately, researchers, conscientious individuals, advocacy organizations, and occasionally the media have pushed back against this counterfactual stance.
The policies derived from it not only fail to prevent the crimes they purportedly are meant to but impose excessive punishments upon those on the registry, their families, and communities.
The most recent example of this comes from the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections, in a report released last month, PA DOC: Recidivism, which stated, “Property crime offenders have the highest recidivism rates. Sex offenders have the lowest recidivism rates”.
Calculating Recidivism includes unrelated crimes and technical violations.
According to the same report, The Pennsylvania Department of Corrections defines recidivism calculation as: “using the first re-arrest or re-incarceration after each release.” It includes technical violations (such as missing an appointment), committing a new crime while on parole, or reconviction of the same or a different crime. Therefore, rates would appear lower if one looked only at rearrest for the same crime category. Registry advocates frequently ignore this fact.
- Supporters of the Pennsylvania Megan’s Law List inaccurately state that people with sexual offenses have a higher rate of reoffending. Candidates for Public Office often use this statement to incite moral panic and increase their popularity amongst voters.
- The now debunked ‘2009 Butner cited as evidence for this. A 2022 report from the PA Department of Corrections shows that sex offenses are the lowest classification of crimes likely to re-offend.
- For all crimes, the calculation of recidivism includes reoffenses in the same category and other crimes plus technical violations (such as missing an appointment).
By Mike C.