It is not often that research in any field is so persuasive that it can propel systemic changes, but that is not an overstatement for the potential of the compelling 2016 meta-analysis conducted by Michael Caldwell at the University of Wisconsin - Madison. Caldwell provides the strongest evidence to date that the base-rate for sexual recidivism by adolescent offenders is so low that it demands reconsideration of best practices with juvenile offenders, and a course-correction for public policies.
In the Online First Publication of “Quantifying the Decline in Juvenile Sexual Recidivism Rates,” (Psychology, Public Policy, and Law; July 18, 2016), Dr. Caldwell reviews 106 international recidivism studies involving more than 33,000 juveniles who have sexually offended. After transparently controlling for variations between studies, Caldwell determined that the mean five-year sexual recidivism rate for offenses committed over the last 30 years is less than 5%. Looking at the most recent 33 studies, since 2000, Caldwell determined “a mean sexual recidivism rate of 2.75%. This suggests that the most current sexual recidivism rate is likely to be below 3%.” Longer follow-up periods, up to 36 months, revealed more sexual recidivism; but thereafter, follow-up times did not significantly increase recidivism rates.
Caldwell thoughtfully considered, and methodically dismissed several potential factors that might explain the decline, concluding that civil regulations and incapacitation do not explain such a significant drop in recidivism, but noted, “… improvements in treatment and supervision is one of the few possible explanations for which there is no contradictory evidence,” and that “preliminary evidence suggests that treatment can be moderately effective.” Caldwell suggests that public discourse might be raising awareness about sexual violence, with a possible mitigating effect. However, he went on to write, “These results offer no conclusive explanation as to the cause of the decline in juvenile sexual recidivism rates.”
Violent crimes in the US, including sex crimes, have been in steep decline for more than three decades. Over the same time period, Caldwell found a 73% decrease in sexual recidivism. Despite the dramatic 30-year decline in both first time and repeat sexual offending, there has been growing public anger about sexual abuse, and a deepening antipathy for those who have sexually offended. In the US, this led to a dramatic increase in sentencing, and a proliferation of “civil regulations” for ‘sexual offenders,’ including a nationwide sex offender registry, regional residence and zone restrictions, local notification laws, domestic and international travel restrictions, and 21 states now provide for the civil commitment of sex offenders, including juveniles.
In the US, many civil regulations were initiated in reaction to serious, high-profile sex crimes by adults, but ensuing changes in public policies gradually migrated into the juvenile system. Caldwell writes, “The bulk of available evidence indicates that the decline in adult and juvenile sexual recidivism rates has occurred, unrelated to, and perhaps despite, these recent policy trends.” He goes on to express his concern that civil regulations “have unintended consequences that harm the adolescent perpetrator, their families, and at times their victims.” In 2013, The Human Rights Watch published a rebuke of the registry for juveniles. It is not an overstatement that most juvenile offenders, no matter how low their risk or how great their effort, cannot escape the devastating, lifelong consequences of current public policies.
Public policies and practices for both adults and juveniles with sexual offenses are predicated on the popular misperception that most sex offenders are destined to reoffend. In 2014, Karl Hanson and colleagues published ground-breaking research which revealed that even men considered at high risk for reoffending were not high-risk forever. Hanson determined that the longer one remained offense-free in the community, the lower the risk for sexually reoffending (a five-year “half-life”). Hanson wrote:
The current results suggest that sexual offenders who remain offence-free could eventually cross a “redemption” threshold in terms of recidivism risk, such that their current risk for a sexual crime becomes indistinguishable from the risk presented by non-sexual offenders. Previous large sample studies have found that the likelihood of an “out of the blue” sexual offence to be committed by offenders with no history of sexual crime is 1% to 3%.*
Now, Caldwell has essentially determined that sexual recidivism data for juvenile offenders yield similar results and conclusions; recidivism is not only much lower than previously believed, but it might be that juveniles who have sexually offended have about the same risk of sexual reoffending as first time offenders - in the range of 1-3%. One 2008 study determined that about 95% of sexual offenses are first-time offenders. Collectively, these findings suggest that the base-rate for sexual recidivism might be the same or less than the rate of first-time juvenile sexual offending. There is mounting research that the basis for civil regulations are largely unfounded, raising significant doubts about not only their efficacy, but whether corresponding public policies for juveniles are both unwarranted and indeed harmful.
Caldwell’s meta-analysis reveals persuasive evidence that many practices currently in place for the treatment and management of juvenile offenders are not really about public safety, but rather about public policy. Sexual misconduct comes at a high cost to victims, their families and friends. Interventions with juvenile offenders also come with a high cost – to those juveniles, their families, and to society. For these reasons, we must commit more resources to reforms, starting with primary prevention. When sexual abuse occurs, Caldwell’s research should strengthen professional courage to not overreact, to avoid the tendency to pathologize or criminalize offending juveniles, to not conflate serious sexual misconduct with public “dangerousness,” and to thoughtfully apply science to effective interventions.
Going forward, an empirically-derived base-rate of less than 3% should be overarching in sexual risk assessments. One challenge of rendering meaningful risk assessments has always been to determine what qualitative or quantifiable variables appear to separate those who sexually reoffend from those who remain offense-free. Unless risk factors or protective factors are determined to be overriding, a 3% base-rate is likely to make it difficult to prove that any specific aggravating or mitigating factor carries enough weight to override such a low base-rate for recidivism. It seems a bit simplistic to set aside established static and dynamic risk factors that are often integrated into a psychosexual assessment, but if clinicians used only this new base-rate to prognosticate sexual reoffending, they would be accurate 97% of the time.
However, risk is not, and should not be the only consideration in a good psychosexual assessment. On the cautionary side, Caldwell noted that there is considerable evidence that juveniles with sexual offenses have often engaged in other delinquent behaviors, and that general delinquency for juveniles is a risk factor for sexually offending as adults. A challenge to using new research that portends exceptionally low detected recidivism rates, will be to strike a better balance between sometimes competing concerns, for victims, offenders, their families, and legitimate public interests.
Researchers typically are neither clinicians nor policymakers, and most are too modest to actively promote their own research. So it is incumbent on colleagues, and all stakeholders, to recognize credible research and have the professional mettle to actually use it – to light the way to informed public policies, and follow it to logical applications with individual clients. For too long it seems we have had it backwards – we have been managing nine out of ten teenagers with sexual offenses as if they are likely to sexually reoffend. In light of Caldwell’s findings, I would like to ask clinicians, social workers, probation agents, prosecutors, judges, law enforcement, and other professionals in the juvenile justice system to consider this question: if you knew, and believed, that 97 out of every 100 young people to whom you are providing services are not destined to sexually reoffend, how would it change, case by case, your treatment and management of those teenagers and their families?
In my experience, once young men come to understand that they have caused harm to another, most feel genuine remorse and profound regret. They know there are no ‘do-overs’ – there is only ‘never again.’ Every individual who has sexually offended can be held accountable through restorative justice, and by employing principles of Risk, Need, and Responsivity, we can uniquely tailor and target treatment as a pathway to restoration. We can wrap every youthful offender in the protective factors of Good Lives, and endeavor to help every juvenile offender to quickly, responsibly, and safely return to their families and communities. Caldwell’s research indicates that they, and we, will succeed 97% of the time.
Jon Brandt, MSW, LICSW
Note: Michael Caldwell has given permission to post his email address, for readers who would like to request a copy of his research: firstname.lastname@example.org
Caldwell, M.F. (2016, July 18). Quantifying the Decline in Juvenile Sexual Recidivism Rates. Psychology, Public Policy, and Law. Advance online publication. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/law0000094
*Hanson, R.K., Harris, A.J.R., Helmus, L, & Thornton, D; High-Risk Sex Offenders May Not Be High Risk Forever, Journal of Interpersonal Violence October 2014, 29: 2792-2813, first published March 24, 2014