Once a sex offender, always a sex offender?

Kelly M. Babchishin

It is a striking task to ask undergraduate students (as well as friends and family members) what they believe is the proportion of convicted sex offenders who recommit a new sexual offence. The typical response is: “most” or, for the more statistically-inclined, “80%, give or take 5%.” Research, however, does not match the public’s view. When based on official statistics (for example: new arrests or convictions for a sexual offence), the rates are disproportionately lower than common expectations: about 7% after 5 years and 12% after 10 years (Helmus et al., 2012).

Of course, some sex offenders have a higher risk of committing a new sexual offence compared to other sex offenders. Generally, these are younger offenders, with male, unrelated, or stranger victims, and with past criminal acts (Hanson & Bussière, 1996). Lower risk offenders are generally offenders who have shorter criminal histories, are older, and have female and related victims. To account for sex offenders with heightened risk of reoffending, higher risk sex offenders are targeted for treatment as well as preventive measures (such as Dangerous Offender hearings in Canada).

Interestingly, a recently published study challenged the belief that high risk sex offenders are high risk forever or, more specifically, that high risk offenders will always have a higher chance of reoffending compared to low risk sex offenders. Namely, Hanson and colleagues (2014) examined the long-term reoffending rate of a large, international sample of sex offenders (approximately 8,000) and found that high risk sex offenders do not always stay at a heightened risk to reoffend compared to lower risk sex offenders. After approximately 10 years offence-free in the community, the proportion of high risk offenders who reoffend (4%) was found to be similar to that of low risk offenders (2%). Such a trend mimics research on non-sex offenders. Specifically, that after a certain period of time offence-free in the community, a released offender’s risk of committing a new offence becomes close to that of an individual without such a criminal history (coined “redemption period” by Blumstein and Nakamura, 2009). The rate of sex offences committed by the general public (that is, men who have never been charged or convicted for a sex offence) is about 1 to 3% (Duwe, 2012; Wormith, Hogg, & Guzzo, 2012). Hanson and colleagues found that it took about 10 years for sex offenders to arrive at this risk level. As a comparison, Blumstein and Nakaruma (2009) found that it took about 5 years for property offences and 8 years for violent offences, such as robbery.

It is true that the risk of reoffending is highest when offenders have just been released in the community (a particularly challenging time), but research also highlights that risk decreases the longer the offenders are offence-free in the community. Most interestingly, after enough years have passed by, the risk posed by an offender can reach a similar level to that of the general population. In short, even among high risk sex offenders, the commonly held belief “once a sex offender, always a sex offender” does not always hold (see Hargreaves and Francis, 2013 for a similar study on juvenile offenders). Studies are needed to examine what factors (after accounting for difference in risk levels) distinguish sex offenders who reoffend in the first years after release and sex offenders who do not reoffend (for example, job stability).

Suggested citation:
Babchishin, K. M. (2014, April 15). Once a sex offender, always a sex offender? [Weblog post]. Retrieved from


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