Sex offenses generate considerably more concern among policymakers, criminal justice system administrators and practitioners, paroling authorities, and the public than most other types of crimes. Just as judges experience more challenges with sentencing decisions in sex offense cases than other types of cases at the "front end" of the system, parole boards are similarly challenged with release decisions in sex offense cases closer to the "back end" of the system. Factors that contribute to parole boards' decisionmaking concerns include the nature and dynamics of sex crimes, heightened uncertainties about recidivism and the potential impact of these crimes on victims and their families, questions about which factors signal increased risk, how to reliably differentiate higher risk from lower risk sex offenders, which parole conditions should be imposed for this special population, and significant political and public scrutiny.
The considerable scope of this issue is highlighted through the following national data:
- Estimates from national victimizations surveys indicate that over 250,000 sexual victimization incidents occur in a given year;
- Over 100,000 arrests are made annually by state and local law enforcement officials for sex crimes such as forcible rape and child molestation;
- An estimated 160,000 convicted sex offenders are incarcerated in prisons across the country, approximately 95% of whom will eventually return to our communities;
- Between 10,000-20,000 sex offenders are released from prisons and return to the community annually;
- Over 700,000 convicted sex offenders are currently under community supervision, including parole, throughout the country; and
- More than 750,000 individuals are on sex offender registries nationwide.
Because sex offending is a complex and multifaceted issue, it requires a multifaceted, systemwide response in order to address victims' needs and interests and manage sex offenders effectively. Such as response requires multiple disciplines and agencies with complementary roles to collaborate in all phases of the criminal justice system, beginning when a sex crime is reported and investigated. It takes into account the importance of specialized prosecutorial practices and sentencing considerations specific to sex crimes, and the ways in which those practices can support risk-reducing strategies, such as prison- or community-based sex offender treatment and specialized probation or parole supervision. In addition, an effective system response recognizes the need for proactive and thorough reentry planning for incarcerated sex offenders, structured and well-informed release decisionmaking practices, carefully crafted release conditions, and measured responses to violations. Without question, paroling authorities play a pivotal role in such a system.
In recent years, this nation has seen an unprecedented increase in sex offender-specific laws, mandates, and policies. Such strategies are largely driven by one or more of the following principal objectives:
- Incapacitation. Confining sex offenders to prisons or other secure facilities, for increasingly lengthier periods of time, in an attempt to eliminate the potential for harm to the community;
- Retribution/Punishment. Delivering punishment or sanctions that are perceived to be appropriate and proportional to the severity of and harm caused to victims of sex crimes;
- Deterrence. Threatening a specific response or sanction that is believed to be sufficiently severe to cause individuals (i.e., sex offenders and non-sex offenders alike) to refrain from committing sex offenses for fear of the consequences; and/or
- Rehabilitation/Risk-Reduction. Providing treatment and other interventions to address the underlying factors linked to sex offending and other problem behaviors, and promote short and long-term change, with a goal of increasing public safety through risk reduction.
These objectives oftentimes parallel the many interests that paroling authorities attempt to balance. With sex offense cases, identifying the most effective decisions and strategies to meet these objectives can be somewhat daunting.
Fortunately, there exists a large body of "what works" literature in the broader criminal justice field and a growing research base specific to sex offenders and sex offender management. This information is being used to support the development of evidence-based and research-informed policies and practices. And when understood and applied effectively, it can better position stakeholders across agencies and disciplines, including paroling authorities, to make well-informed and measured decisions that promote public safety.