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|The examples and perspective in this article deal primarily with the United States and do not represent a worldwide view of the subject. (April 2011)|
A sex offender (sexual offender, sex abuser or sexual abuser) is a person who has committed a sex crime or in some instances even mere public urination. What constitutes a sex crime differs by culture and legal jurisdiction. Most jurisdictions compile their laws into sections, such as traffic, assault and sexual. The majority of convicted sex offenders have convictions for crimes of a sexual nature; however, some sex offenders have simply violated a law contained in a sexual category. Some of the crimes which usually result in a mandatory sex-offender classification are: a second prostitution conviction, sending or receiving obscene content in the form of SMS text messages (sexting), relationship between young adults and teenagers resulting in corruption of a minor (if the age between them is greater than 1,060 days; if any sexual contact was made by the adult to the minor, child molestation has occurred). If sexual conduct occurred, unlawful sexual conduct involving a minor has occurred. Other serious offences are sexual assault, statutory rape, bestiality, child sexual abuse, female genital mutilation, incest, rape, and sexual imposition.
Pandering obscenity offences range from the possession of the book (in the United States) Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure by John Cleland to digital child pornography. In the modern world of technology, many jurisdictions are reforming their laws to prevent the over-prosecution of sex offenders and focusing on crimes involving a victim. The term "sexual predator" is often used to describe a sex offender or any of the "tier offenders"; however, only the category just below sexually-violent sexual predator is reserved for a severe or repeated sex offender: sexual predator. The Adam Walsh Act (AWA) proposed to provide funding to each jurisdiction which would agree to incorporate its Act into their law. In the few jurisdictions accepting the agreement there are Tier I, Tier II or Tier III sex offenders. Individuals convicted of petty crimes not covered by the AWA are still liable to abide by the previous regulations denoting them as a sex offender (or habitual sex offender, sexual predator, sexually violent sexual predator or child-victim offender).
In the United States, the United Kingdom and other countries, a convicted sex offender is often required to register with the respective jurisdiction's sex offender registry. In the U.S., registry databases are often open to the public. Sexual offenders are sometimes classified by level. The highest-level offenders generally must register for their entire lives; low-level offenders may only need to register for a period of time.
A 2002 study by the United States Department of Justice indicated that recidivism rates among sex offenders was 5.3 percent; that is, about 1 in 19 of released sex offenders were later arrested for another sex crime. The same study mentioned that 68 percent of released non-sex offenders were rearrested for any crime (both sex and non-sex offenses), while 43 percent of the released sex offenders were rearrested for any crime (and 24 percent re-convicted).
A collection of official studies spanning the years 1983–2010 for all 50 states and the federal government of the US has been assembled. This URL provides a spreadsheet and .zip file containing sources supporting the DOJ study, where the average recidivism of sex offenders committing new sex crimes since 1983 is approximately 9 percent, compared to the 42 percent average recidivism rate for all felony offenders committing any new felony offense.
According to the Office of Justice Programs (OJP) of the United States Department of Justice, in New York State the recidivism rate for sex offenders has been shown to be lower than any other crime except murder. Another report from the OJP which studied the recidivism of prisoners released in 1994 in 15 states (accounting for two-thirds of all prisoners released in the United States that year) reached the same conclusion.
In 2007 the State Bureau of Investigation in North Carolina made significant changes to its sex-offender registration system, including new search criteria that include an "offender status" search (enabling an explicit search for convicted sex-offense recidivists in the sex-offender database). Manual searches (by county) using the new criteria yield some of the lowest recidivism rates ever disseminated by any law-enforcement establishment. In the entire state of North Carolina there are only 71 recidivists shown on the registry, if incarcerated offenders are included. Per-county results for "registered"-status offenders (compared with "recidivist"-status offenders) on the North Carolina registry yield actual convicted recidivist percentages ranging from zero to a fraction of one percent.
Of released sex offenders who allegedly committed another sex crime, 40 percent perpetrated the new offense within a year or less from their prison discharge. Within three years of release, 2.5 percent of released rapists were rearrested for another rape, and 1.2 percent of those who had served time for homicide were arrested for a new homicide. Of the 9,691 male sex offenders released from prisons in 15 US states in 1994, 5.3 percent were rearrested for a new sex crime within 3 years of release. Sex offenders were about four times more likely than non-sex offenders to be arrested for another sex crime after their discharge from prison (5.3 percent of sex offenders, versus 1.3 percent of non-sex offenders). An estimated 24 percent of those serving time for rape and 19 percent of those serving time for sexual assault had been on probation (or parole) at the time of the offense for which they were in state prison in 1991. On a given day in 1994, there were approximately 234,000 offenders convicted of rape or sexual assault under the care, custody, or control of corrections agencies; nearly 60 percent of these sex offenders were under conditional supervision in the community.
Approximately 4,300 child molesters were released from prisons in 15 US states in 1994. An estimated 3.3 percent of these 4,300 were rearrested for another sex crime against a child within 3 years of release from prison. Among child molesters released from prison in 1994, 60 percent had been in prison for molesting a child 13 years old or younger. The median age of victims of those imprisoned for sexual assault was less than 13 years old; the median age of rape victims was about 22 years. Child molesters were, on average, five years older than violent offenders who committed their crimes against adults. Nearly 25 percent of child molesters were age 40 or older, but about 10 percent of inmates with adult victims were in that age group.
A sex offender registry is a system in place in a number of jurisdictions designed to allow authorities to keep track of the residence and activity of sex offenders (including those released from prison). In some jurisdictions (especially in the United States), information in the registry is made available to the public via a website or other means. In many jurisdictions, registered sex offenders are subject to additional restrictions (including housing). Those on parole (or probation) may be subject to restrictions not applicable to other parolees or probationers. These include restrictions on being in the presence of minors, living in proximity to a school or daycare center, or owning toys (or other items of interest to minors).
Megan's Law, in the U.S., is designed to sanction sex offenders and reduce their recidivism rate. The law is enacted and enforced on a state-by-state basis. Most states also restrict where convicted sex offenders can live after their release, prohibiting residency within a designated distance of schools and daycare centers (usually 1,000–2,000 feet (300–610 m)). Guided by the 2007 Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act, sex offenders must avoid of such areas as schools, bus stops, gyms, recreation centers, playgrounds, parks, swimming pools, libraries, nursing homes, and places of worship by 500 to 2,500 feet (150 to 760 m). However, residence stipulations vary from state to state. Some states (such as Arkansas, Illinois, Washington and Idaho) do not require sex offenders to move from their residences if a forbidden facility is built or a law is enacted after the offender takes up residency.
Committing to a residence requires a convicted sex offender to be notified of registration regulations by local law enforcement if convicted after January 1, 2005. The offender must act upon the notification within five business days of receipt. If and when an offender is released from incarceration, they must confirm their registration status within five business days. Registration data includes the offender’s sex, height, weight, date of birth, identifying characteristics (if any), statutes violated, fingerprints and a current photograph. An offender’s email addresses, chat room IDs and instant-messaging aliases must be surrendered to authorities. In Colorado, an offender must re-register when moving to a new address, changing their legal name, employment, volunteer activity, identifying information used online or enrollment status at a post-secondary educational institution. A web-based registration list may be found on county websites, which identifies adult convicted sex offenders who are sexually-violent predators convicted of felony sexual acts, crimes of violence or failure to register as required. Legally, “any person who is a sexually violent predator and any person who is convicted as an adult...has a duty to register for the remainder of his or her natural life”. Exceptions to this include deferred sentencing for the offense or petition of the court for termination of registration.
Behavior modification programs have been shown to reduce recidivism in sex offenders. Often, such programs use principles of applied behavior analysis. Two such approaches from this line of research have promise. The first uses operant conditioning approaches (which use reward and punishment to train new behavior, such as problem-solving) and the second uses respondent conditioning procedures, such as aversion therapy. Many of the behaviorism programs use covert sensitization and/or odor aversion: both are forms of aversion therapy, which have had ethical challenges. Such programs are effective in lowering recidivism by 15–18 percent. The use of aversion therapy remains controversial, and is an ethical issue related to the professional practice of behavior analysis.
In 2007, the Texas State Auditor released a report showing that sex offenders who completed the Texas Sex Offender Treatment Program (SOTP) were 61 percent less likely to commit a new crime.
Chemical castration is used in some countries and states to treat sex offenders. Unlike physical castration, it is reversible by stopping the medication. For sex offenders with severe or extreme paraphilias, physical castration appears to be effective. It results in a 20-year re-offense rate of less than 2.3 percent (versus 80 percent in the untreated control group), according to a large 1963 study involving a total of 1036 sex offenders by the German researcher A. Langelüddeke. This was much lower than otherwise expected, compared with overall sex offender recidivism rates. Although considered cruel and unusual punishment by many, physical castration does not otherwise affect the lifespan of men (compared with uncastrated men).
Therapists use various methods to assess the threat of sex offenders. Tests used to determine a sex offender's recidivism risk include: