The Diversity of Sex Offenders

The term "sex offender" tends to be used broadly to refer to any and all individuals who commit sex crimes.  It carries with it an implication that all sex offenders are alike, which oftentimes includes assumptions that most sex offenders will inevitably reoffend and that little can be done to effectively reduce the presumed high risk they pose.  Although not supported by research, these and other assumptions have resulted in "one size fits all" policies and practices to manage convicted sex offenders.  For example, many states have increased mandatory minimum sentences, imposed lifetime supervision, required electronic monitoring or GPS, and enacted residence restrictions that apply to most or all felony sex offenders, regardless of individual differences such as risk level, case characteristics, and other circumstances.

What Parole Boards Should Know: Sex Offenders Differ in Multiple Ways

  • What they "look like" varies (e.g., demographics, personality, social and criminal history)
  • Who they victimize varies (e.g., age, gender, relationship to victim)
  • Offending behaviors, patterns, motivations, and contributing factors vary
  • Intervention needs and responses to intervention vary
  • Motivation to change varies
  • Recidivism risk varies

For some paroling authorities, heightened concerns about sex offenders overall can result in formal and informal policies that preclude or significantly postpone the release of otherwise parole-ready sex offenders primarily because the conviction is a sex offense.  This type of "one size fits all" approach (i.e., if a sex offender, then no early release) is understandable, given the heightened scrutiny that often comes with release decisions and post-release management involving sex offenders. It is also seen commonly in the creation of uniform sets of specialized "sex offender conditions" that are broadly imposed for all sex offenders by supervision agencies, the courts, or paroling authorities.  Such conditions are generally required – in addition to the more customary conditions – without taking into account individual differences among sex offenders.    

Research shows, however, that individuals who commit sex offenses are a heterogeneous population and that they can differ in many important ways.  For example, sex offenders vary in terms of:

Because of these variations, adopting blanket "one size fits all" responses for sex offense cases will not increase public safety, and may in fact decrease it.  The key to effectively managing this special population is to ensure that sex offender-related policies and practices – including those for which paroling authorities are responsible – are well-informed, guided by research, and take into account the important differences that exist among convicted sex offenders.


  • Official crime statistics and numerous follow-up studies on adult sex offenders indicate that, on the average, less than 25% are rearrested or reconvicted for new sex crimes.   This is recognized as an underestimate because many sex crimes go unreported or undetected.
  • When recidivism occurs with sex it is much more likely to involve a non-sexual crime than another sex offense.  For example, in a national study of sex offenders released from prisons, 43% were rearrested during the first three years post-release for any type of crime (Langan et al., 2003); however, of those rearrests, only 5.1% of those rearrests involved a new sex offense.  Furthermore, for those sex offenders who were rearrested or returned to prison, 71% were for technical violations (Langan et al., 2003).
  • Recidivism estimates are oftentimes reported for sex offenders as a group, and do not reflect the wide variations among individuals who commit sex offenders.  Some sex offenders pose a very high risk to commit additional sex offenses or other crimes in the future, others pose a more moderate risk, and still others present a low risk to recidivate.
  • Sex offenders' likelihood of recidivism – whether sexual or non-sexual – is influenced by a variety of research-identified risk factors; and recidivism risk can be reduced through targeted interventions.

< Background

A Model Framework:
The Comprehensive Approach
to Sex Offender Management