Convicting, treating & managing child sex offenders
The National Centre for Missing and Exploited Children (2017) reported that there are 874,725 registered sex offenders in the United States, with census figures revealing a national rate of 268 registered sex offenders per 100,000 citizens (ranging from 128 per 100,000 in Maryland to 686 for every 100,000 citizens in Oregon). Figures in Australia aren’t regularly published, but in May 2017, it was reported that there are around 20,000 registered offenders across Australian jurisdictions (e.g., Biddington, 2017), which equates to roughly 82 registered sex offenders per 100,000 Australian citizens.
Conviction of child sex offenders
More than 140,000 sexual assaults (including assaults of adults and children) were reported to Australian police in the 10 years to 2017. Just under 42,600 or 30% of sexual assault reports led to an arrest, summons, formal caution or other legal action. Another 50,800 investigations – more than 35% of reported sexual assaults – remain unsolved. Nationally, police rejected 9% of reports in the 10 years to 2017. The rejected or “unfounded” rate varied by jurisdiction, with Queensland Police rejecting 20%, Victoria 9%, and NSW rejecting 5% of sexual assault reports over the 10-year period (Ting, Scott & Palmer, 2020).
A recent study examining NSW police and court administrative data over a 14-year period (2003–2016) estimated that only 12% of offences reported to police resulted in a conviction, at a relatively stable rate over 14 years. Only one in five cases (21.6%) proceeded beyond the investigation stage. Criminal proceedings were more likely to commence when the alleged victim was 7–12 years old at the time of the incident, when the suspect was an adult and at least 10 years older than the victim, and when the report to police was made when the victim was an adult. Just over half (55.5%) of the matters finalised in court resulted in a conviction (Cashmore, Taylor & Parkinson, 2019).
A prospective study tracking 183 child sexual abuse cases referred to two Australian Child Protection Units found a 76% attrition rate prior to prosecution, though of those cases taken to court, 71% resulted in a conviction. Attrition was found to be mainly associated with child or family factors (e.g., stress or poor functioning of the child and family; child age; child unwillingness to proceed), or procedural factors (e.g., child gave an unclear account; insufficient evidence) (Parkinson, Shrimpton, Swanston, O’Toole, & Oates, 2002).
A recent analysis of 231 historic child sexual abuse cases in Canada revealed an attrition rate of 69% from point of first police report to trial, with 31% of cases resulting in conviction. Most cases of attrition were initiated by complainants, with the majority withdrawing in the early stages of the police investigation – primarily due to reported “cold feet”, which included discomfort about the process, reluctance to deal with the police, and fear of possible reactions of others, and due to “therapeutic” reasons, where complainants indicated that their needs had been met by the process and had no further desire to continue in the criminal justice system. Among the 72 convictions, more suspects pled guilty (n=39) than were convicted in court (n=33). Three complainant-related variables were found to be significant in predicting continuation – multi-complainant cases, previous disclosure by complainants, and complainant age (15-17 years old) at offence (Chenier, Shawyer, Williams, & Milne, 2021).
Data from the NSW Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research showed that during 2012-16, the average conviction rate for all offences was 89%. The conviction rate for child sexual assault offences was 60% over that same period, compared with 50% for adult sexual assault, 70% for assault, 73% for robbery and 94% for illicit drugs (Browne, 2017).
Data from the NSW District Court shows that conviction rates for child sexual assault cases are declining despite the number of cases doubling over a three-year period. In 2012-13, 73 child sexual assault matters were finalised at a defended hearing in the District Court with a conviction in 56% of cases. Meanwhile in 2015-16, 142 matters were finalised at a defended hearing with a conviction in 47% of cases (Browne, 2017).
Data from the NSW Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research show that in 2017, 7,218 sexual offence incidents involving a victim between the ages of ten and fifteen were reported to police. In 2017, 954 persons appeared in NSW Local and Higher Courts charged with at least one child sexual offence; of the 954 persons charged, 613 (64.3%) were found guilty of at least one child sexual offence. Of the 613 persons found guilty of at least one child sexual offence, 399 (65.1%) received a sentence of full time imprisonment and 30 received an intensive correction order (Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research, 2017).
An analysis of historic child sexual abuse complaints heard in Canadian courts during the period 1986 – 2012 showed that although guilty pleas, convictions and guilty verdicts decreased through the 1990s, each of these increased in the early 2000s (around the time when delayed reports began increasingly to be viewed as credible). Length of incarceration for those convicted was shown to increase over time throughout the period 1986 – 2012 (Connolly, Coburn & Chong, 2017).
The Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research (BOSCAR) in NSW found that criminal proceedings were initiated in only 15% of incidents of sexual assault reported to police involving child victims, and 19% of incidents involving adult victims (Fitzgerald, 2006, cited in Millsteed & McDonald, 2017).
An analysis of 659 child sexual abuse cases reported across 2011 in one jurisdiction in Australia found that 270 cases (41%) resulted in charges, while 52 (7.9%) were withdrawn by the child or child’s parents, and 326 (49.5%) cases exited for other reasons. Cases were more likely to be withdrawn than result in charges if they: involved younger (0-6 years) and older children (13-15 years), involved female suspects, involved an extra-familial rather than intra-familial child-suspect relationship, and involved a single incident rather than repeated incidents (Christensen, Sharman & Powell, 2016).
An analysis of reports of sexual offence incidents made to Victorian police during the period 2015/16 – 2016/17 found that just 25% of the 14,910 offence incidents resulted in an offender being charged, and 15% of incidents resulted in charges being proven in court. Attrition rates were lower for sexual offences involving a child victim – 36% of sexual offence against children incidents (predominantly child sexual abuse material and grooming offences) resulted in a charge being proven in court. Incidents involving young people were less likely to be withdrawn, more likely to result in an offender being charged and more likely to have those charges finalised in court (Bright, Roach, Barnaba, Walker, & Millsteed, 2021).
The Victorian Law Reform Commission found that during the period 1997-99 in Victoria, fewer than one in seven reports to police of incest or sexual penetration of a child proceeded to prosecution (VLRC, 2004, cited in Millsteed & McDonald, 2017).
Sentencing of child sex offenders
In Queensland during the period 2006-07 to 2015-16, there were 3,035 child exploitation material (CEM) offenders finalised, responsible for 8,198 CEM offences. Of these, 1,470 offenders under 17 years were diverted from the criminal justice system, while 1,565 offenders were sentenced in court. The majority (78%) received a custodial penalty, of which 73% were suspended sentences. The median custodial duration for CEM (as the most serious offence) was 11.8 months (Qld Sentencing Advisory Council, 2017).
A comparison of sentencing outcomes observed in New South Wales with those recorded in Queensland and Victoria found that median head sentences for the offence of sexual assault of a child under 10 years were: 84 months in NSW (2006-13), 72 months in Queensland (2007-13), and 48 months in Victoria (2007-12) (Brignell & Donnelly, 2015).
A report released by the Sentencing Advisory Council of Tasmania (2015) showed that the median sentences imposed for the offence of maintaining a sexual relationship with a young person were: 120 months in NSW (2007-13), 84 months in Queensland (2007-14), 72 months in Victoria (2009-14), and 32 months in Tasmania (2008-14).
Criminal court statistics published by the NSW Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research (2015) give an understanding of sentencing of child sex offences and other comparable crimes within NSW. In 2014, the average length of imprisonment term handed down in NSW higher courts for: homicide and related offences was 119.9 months; illicit drug offences was 32.4 months; sexual assault and related offences was 30.9 months; sexual offences against children was 29.3 months; acts intended to cause injury was 27 months; and robbery, extortion and related offences was 26.3 months.
Over the two year period 2009-10, 495 offenders were convicted of child sexual assault in NSW (97% of whom were male). The most common penalty imposed was a prison sentence: 75% of offenders convicted of aggravated child sexual assault received a prison penalty, with an average aggregate sentence of 68 months and an average minimum term of 39 months. Meanwhile, 52% of offenders convicted of indecent child assault received a prison penalty, with an average aggregate sentence of 25 months and an average minimum term of 14 months (Holmes, 2013).
A comparison of sentencing outcomes for serious violent offences as well as sexual offences in Queensland during the period 2006-06 to 2009-10 showed that the median sentence for: murder was life imprisonment; manslaughter was 8 years; rape was 6.5 years; maintaining a sexual relationship with a child was 6 years; incest was 5 years; robbery and grievous bodily harm was 3 years; indecent treatment of a child under 16 years was 1.5 years; carnal knowledge with or of children under 16 years was 1 year; and possession of child exploitation material was 1 year (Sentencing Advisory Council Qld, 2011).
During the period 2013-14 to 2017-18 in Victoria: 70 people were sentenced in the higher courts for a principal offence of ‘Sexual penetration with a child aged under 12’; 301 people were sentenced for the offence ‘Sexual penetration with a child aged 12 – 16 years’; 150 people were sentenced for the offence ‘Indecent act with a child aged under 16’; and 69 people were sentenced for the offence ‘Persistent sexual abuse of a child aged under 16’. The most common sentence for each of these offences was a prison term (ranging from 29% for ‘Indecent act with a child aged under 16’, to 88% for ‘Persistent sexual abuse of a child aged under 16’). The average lengths of imprisonment (principal sentence) in 2016-17 for each of these offences were: 4 years and 0 months for ‘Sexual penetration for a child aged under 12’; 3 years and 3 months for ‘Sexual penetration with a child aged 12 – 16 years’; 1 year and 11 months for ‘Indecent act with a child aged under 16’; and 6 years and 10 months for ‘Persistent sexual abuse of a child aged under 16’ (Sentencing Advisory Council Vic, 2019a,b,c,d).
A recent report by the Tasmanian Sentencing Advisory Council has examined sentencing data for serious child sex offences for the period 2015-2018 in comparison with sentencing data for the period 2008–14, showing an upward trend in the sentences imposed for these offences. For example, for rape involving a complainant under the age of 17, the minimum sentence remained the same, while the maximum sentence imposed increased from 12 years to 15 years (an increase of 25%) and the median sentence increased from four and half years to seven years (an increase of 55.6%). For the crime of maintaining a sexual relationship with a young person, the use of imprisonment has increased (64.2% to 72.2%), along with the lowest sentence imposed (from four months to 12 months – an increase of 200%), the maximum sentence imposed (from 12 years to 14.5 years – an increase of 21%), and the median sentence imposed, which has doubled from three years to six years (an increase of 100%). Sentencing for sexual intercourse with a young person has also increased, with the longest sentence imposed increasing from two years to four years (an increase of 100%), the median sentence increasing from seven months to 19.5 months (an increase of 178%) and the shortest sentence imposed increasing from two months to nine months (an increase of 350%) (Sentencing Advisory Council of Tasmania, 2018).
Research shows that there is a gender disparity in sentencing of sexual offenders, with females receiving less punitive punishment than males. Female sex offenders are more likely to receive non-custodial sentences such as fines, unconditional or conditional release and probation, and less likely to be incarcerated than male sexual offenders (cited in Damiris, McKillop, Christensen, Rayment-McHugh, Burton & Patterson, 2020). Research by Damiris et al. (2020) however, showed that female sexual offenders show more contrition, which generally accounts for lower sentencing, leading the authors to conclude the specific case-relevant factors may in part account for differences in sentences handed down to female and male sexual offenders.
Treatment and management of offenders
Lasher and McGrath (2018) compared the characteristics of child sexual abuse offenders who persisted offending (i.e. committed a new serious sexual or other violent offence) versus those who desisted from re-offending over a 5-year period, following enrolment in a community cognitive-behavioural sex offender treatment program. Desisters were found to show change on a risk factor measure during the first year of treatment at a rate double that of persisters. The only practical change over the 2-year treatment period pertained to the social stability factor on the risk scale, comprising emotion management, problem-solving, employment, residence and social influence items. This finding reflected positive outcomes relating to social integration and prosocial environments in the treatment of child sexual offenders (Lasher & McGrath, 2018).
Kim and colleagues (2016) reviewed and synthesised meta-analyses of sex offender treatments (including psychological treatment, institutional treatment and medical intervention approaches) designed to reduce recidivism, and found that each of the 11 included meta-analyses reported significant recidivism reduction outcomes (with the most recent 5 meta-analyses showing an overall 22% reduction in recidivism). The results of this study showed that sex offender treatment appears to be more successful with adolescent rather than adult offenders, and that community-based treatments compared to institutional treatments have a larger effect in reducing recidivism (Kim, Benekos & Merlo, 2016).
Various meta-analyses have shown some empirical support for the effectiveness of treatment programs for adult sexual offenders, including those who commit child sex offences. The majority of treatment programs evaluated incorporate cognitive behavioural techniques. For example, a recent meta-analysis of recidivism studies involving equivalent treatment and control groups (the majority of which involved CBT and many of which included child sex offenders in their sample) found a difference in recidivism between treated and control groups of 3.6 percentage points (10.1% in treated vs. 13.7% in untreated offenders) and a relative reduction in recidivism of 26.3% (Schmucker & Lösel, 2015). Additionally, an older but well-cited Canadian study examining over 9,000 sex offenders in four different countries found that 9.9% of treated sex offenders reoffended sexually, compared with 17.3% of non-treated sex offenders (Hanson, Gordon, Harris, et al., 2002).
Australian research has indicated that evidence now suggests that “sex offender treatment is at least moderately effective in reducing reoffending. Not all programs are equally effective however, and a number of sex offenders will re-offend even after treatment — particularly those assessed as high risk” (Sheehan & Ware, 2012).
There is relatively little research conducted on female sexual offenders and appropriate treatment programs, despite increasing evidence that the motivating factors and behaviours of female offenders are distinct from those of male sexual offenders (Pflugradt, Bradley Allen, & Marshall, 2018).
Research evidence provides support for the effectiveness of community re-integration programs such as Circles of Support and Accountability (COSA), which uses volunteers to provide support and a level of accountability through regular meetings with sex offenders as they re-integrate into the community. A recent randomised control trial of the COSA program in Minnesota found that participation in COSA significantly reduced sexual recidivism, lowering the risk of rearrest for a new sex offense by 88% (Duwe, 2018). General recidivism was also found to be reduced, with reductions ranging in size from 49% to 57%. Additionally, the results of this research showed that for every dollar spent on COSA in Minnesota, the program has yielded an estimated benefit of $3.73 (Duwe, 2018).
Two quasi-experimental evaluations of Circles of Support and Accountability have also been conducted in Canada (Wilson, Cortoni & McWhinnie, 2009; Wilson, Picheca et al. 2005). The results of both of these studies showed significantly lower rates of recidivism among COSA than comparison group offenders, for sexual, violent and general recidivism. Wilson et al.’s (2005) original study found that COSA participants had 70% less sexual recidivism than offenders who did not participate in a COSA. In the more recent study, Wilson et al. (2009) found that COSA participants had 83% less sexual recidivism than non-participants.
Research into the effectiveness of sex offender registration and notification (SORN) laws, such as Megan’s Law in the United States, generally show that these measures do not lead to significant reductions in recidivism (e.g., Zgoba, Veysey, & Dalessandro, 2010; Zgoba, Witt, Dalessandro, & Veysey, 2008; Tewksbury, Jennings & Zgoba, 2012). A recent, long-term evaluation of Megan’s Law examined the sexual and general recidivism rates of 547 convicted sex offenders released before and after the enactment of the law in New Jersey. Offenders were followed up for an average period of 15 years. The results of this evaluation showed that SORN legislation has not had a significant impact on sexual or general reoffending rates for sex offenders overall in the past two decades. The evidence did show, however that the legislation may have slightly impacted on re-offenses generally for those “high risk” offenders – those who are most likely to re-offend, and at high rates, post-release (Zgoba, Jennings & Salerno, 2018).
Sandler and colleagues (2008) explored differences in sexual offense rates in New York State before and after the implementation of state-wide SORN laws. This study involved analysing more than 170,000 recorded sexual offence arrests for the years 1986-2006, and found that the large majority of sex offence arrests (95%) were of first-time sex offenders. The authors concluded that SORN laws have not reduced sexual offending by first-time offenders and have also not impacted significantly on recidivism rates of convicted offenders (Sandler et al., 2008).
Along with not being found to impact significantly on overall recidivism rates, SORN laws have been shown to have adverse impacts on offender re-integration factors, such as the ability to obtain housing, employment and prosocial supports, all of which have been shown to be significant risk factors for recidivism (Grossi, 2017).
Biddington, M. (2017). Proposed travel restrictions for registered child sex offenders. Parliament of Australia, FlagPost – Parliamentary Library Blog, 19 June. https://www.aph.gov.au/About_Parliament/Parliamentary_Departments/Parliamentary_Library/FlagPost/2017/June/Proposed_travel_restrictions_for_registered_child_sex_offenders
Bright, S., Roach, C., Barnaba, L., Walker, S., & Millsteed, M. (2021). Attrition of sexual offence incidents through the Victorian criminal justice system: 2021 update. Melbourne: Crime Statistics Agency.
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