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Recidivism: How often do Child Molesters go on to Reoffend?

Some people claim that child abusers can't be cured and invariably reoffend. Others suggest that recidivism rates are low and that sex offenders are less likely to reoffend than those who commit other types of crimes. What is the truth?

Overall, follow-up studies typically find sexual recidivism rates of 10%-15% after five years, 20% after 10 years, and 30%-40% after 20 years (see, Hanson, Morton, & Harris, 2003).

However, these numbers are conservative because not all offences are detected.

In fact, a careful review of the scientific and legal literature shows that determining true recidivism rates are next to impossible as recidivism rates only count the number of sex offenders released into the community who are caught and convicted.

The vast majority of sex offenses are never reported. For instance, the National Women's Study surveyed a representative sample of over 4,000 adult women in the United States . Three hundred forty-one (8.5%) of these women were victims of at least one rape prior to the age of 18; however, only 11.9% of these women reported the rape to authorities (Hanson et al., 1990). And it must be remembered, of the few offenses reported, an even smaller number result in convictions.

The problem with using recidivism rates to determine the rate of reoffending is readily apparent when considering the following example. If 100% of released molesters reoffended, but the rate of reporting is only 12%, and the conviction rate is half of this, than the recidivism rate would be reported as only 6%!

Prentky et al. (1997) examined recidivism rates on 115 child molesters and concluded that: (1) child molesters remain at risk to reoffend long after their discharge, in some cases 15-20 years after discharge; (2) there is a marked underestimation of recidivism rates.

Likewise, a review by the American Psychological Association (2003) concluded that "the research demonstrates that even sexual offenses against children that occurred long ago evince a continuing risk of recidivism by the offender."

Another perspective on the problem is offered by Anna Salter, one of the foremost experts on sex offenders in the country. She writes the following in her popular book Predators:

"The dry research figures only confirm what I have seen over and over in this field: there are a lot of sexual offenses out there and the people who commit them don't get caught very often. When an offender is caught and has a thorough evaluation with a polygraph backup, he will reveal dozens, sometimes hundreds of offenses he was never apprehended for.  In an unpublished study by Pamela Van Wyk, 26 offenders in her incarcerated treatment program entered the program admitting an average of 3 victims each. Faced with a polygraph and the necessity of passing it to stay in the treatment program, the next group of 23 men revealed an average of 175 victims each."


American Psychological Association. (2003, February 19). Amicus Curiae brief submitted in Stogner.

Hanson, R. F., Resnick, H. S., Saunders, B. E., Kilpatrick, D. G., & Best, C. (1990). Factors related to the reporting of childhood rape. Child Abuse & Neglect, 23, 559-569.