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Is this U.S. Supreme Court Ruling on Sex Offenders Based on a Myth?

March 31, 2017, on Sex Crimes |

Hundreds of court decisions in the United States rely on the premise that there is a “frightening and high” rate of recidivism among sexual offenders. Both lower court decisions and Supreme Court cases have used this basic premise to allow legislatures to pass laws that “effectively banish registered sex offenders from many aspects of everyday life,” according to the New York Times.  

The consequences of a conviction for a sex offense are grave and change life permanently for offenders, in large part because of this belief that vulnerable members of society must be protected from those who may offend again. This belief is one big reason why it is so important for offenders to raise the most vigorous defense to charges possible with help from a New York sex crimes defense attorney.

But, what is this premise is wrong? What if the basic “fact” that sex offenders are extremely likely to reoffend is not actually a fact at all?

Is the High Recidivism Rate of Sex Offenders a Myth?

In a case called McKune v. Lile, Justice Kennedy's opinion said that among sex offenders: “The rate of recidivism of untreated offenders has been estimated to be as high as 80 percent.”  This data came from a publication called A Practitioner's Guide to Treating the Incarcerated Male Sex Offender.

That guide, which spans 231 pages, was published in 1988 by the Department of Justice.  Numerous statistics are contained within it, including the statistic that recidivism rates are as high as 80 percent. However, just one source within the guide suggested that the rate of re-offenses was actually that high. The source came from a Psychology Today article, which had been written for a general audience rather than for the DOJ.

The Psychology Today article had been written by authors who ran a counseling program for sex offenders. Likely wanting to encourage more people to take advantage of their counseling services,  they stated that as many as 80 percent of untreated sex offenders commit more offenses after being released from prison. No evidence or supporting information was included.

The DOJ guide stated that this 80 percent number could potentially be exaggerated.  Yet, it has formed the basis for decades of court decisions upholding tremendous restrictions on sex offenders. The Supreme Court quoted the statistic when upholding Alaska's offender registry law in 2003, and more than 100-lower courts have also quoted the statistic.

If actual recidivism numbers are much lower, this could mean there is no legitimate justification for excluding convicted offenders from so much of civil society. Unfortunately, a very long history of decisions and a deeply ingrained belief that sex offenders are likely to reoffend would make it very difficult to make fundamental changes to give convicted offenders back the rights that have been curtailed over the years.

As long as offenders continue to be restricted and stigmatized in so many ways, it remains vital to fight charges aggressively. Talk with a New York sex crimes defense attorney to find out your options.

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