The Characteristics of Persistent Sexual Offenders: A Meta-Analysis of Recidivism Studies

By R. Karl Hanson and Kelly E. Morton-Bourgon
Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness Canada

A meta-analysis of 82 recidivism studies (1,620 findings from 29,450 sexual offenders) identified deviant sexual preferences and antisocial orientation as the major predictors of sexual recidivism for both adult and adolescent sexual offenders. Antisocial orientation was the major predictor of violent recidivism and general (any) recidivism. The review also identified some dynamic risk factors that have the potential of being useful treatment targets (e.g., sexual preoccupations, general self-regulation problems). Many of the variables commonly addressed in sex offender treatment programs (e.g., psychological distress, denial of sex crime, victim empathy, stated motivation for treatment) had little or no relationship with sexual or violent recidivism.

Antisocial orientation refers to antisocial personality, antisocial traits (such as impulsivity, substance abuse, unemployment), and a history of rule violation. There is a strong association between rule violation and impulsive, reckless behavior, such as excessive drinking, frequent moves, fights, and unsafe work practices (Caspi et al., 1994; Gottfredson & Hirschi, 1990). Antisocial orientation facilitates sexual offending because individuals will not commit sexual crimes unless they are (a) willing to hurt others, (b) can convince themselves that they are not harming their victims, or (c) feel unable to stop themselves. Rapists are more likely than child molesters to have an antisocial orientation (Firestone, Bradford, Greenberg, & Serran, 2000; see review by West, 1983), but indicators of hostility and lifestyle instability are associated with sexual recidivism in both groups (Prentky, Knight, Lee, & Cerce, 1995; Rice, Quinsey, & Harris, 1991).

The Characteristics of Persistent Sexual Offenders: A Meta-Analysis of Recidivism Studies

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