New research reveals who may molest again

By Tori DeAngelis

Two new studies by the same team of researchers show that many convicted child molesters continue to commit sexual crimes long after they're out of prison, and give a clearer picture of which child molesters are likely to commit certain crimes again.

In one study--in press at Law and Human Behavior--the number of sexual charges against 115 child molesters in the sample was 14 percent at three years after discharge from prison; 30 percent at year 10; 46 percent at year 20; and 52 percent at year 25.

In the other study, which appeared in the February issue of the Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology (Vol. 65, No. 1, 141-149), the researchers found other characteristics that predicted a child molester's likelihood of re-offending sexually:

•A strong sexual preoccupation with children, both in fantasy and in the amount of time they spent around them;

•Prior sexual offenses; and

•Unusual sexual behaviors such as fetishism, exhibitionism and transvestism.

Together, the findings suggest the need for long-term, intensive supervision and psychological treatment for the men most likely to re-offend, believes Robert Prentky, PhD, who conducted the studies with Raymond Knight, PhD, of Brandeis University and Austin Lee, PhD, of Boston University. Prentky directs clinical and forensic services at the Joseph J. Peters Institute in Philadelphia.

Many states now push for child molesters to spend the maximum sentence in prison, assuming that a stiffer punishment will be a future deterrent. But that leaves no safety net, he said. 'You have really dangerous men who are simply returned to the community after 15 years with no supervision and expected to make a satisfactory adjustment,' Prentky said. Long-term supervision, by contrast, could help to avoid either expensive reimprisonment or dangerous re-offense, he said.

Prentky's 17 years studying child molesters also leads him to believe that community notification laws are short-sighted. The laws are popularly known as 'Megan laws' named after a 7-year-old New Jersey girl who was sexually assaulted and murdered in 1989. Prentky notes that while these laws might allow people to warn children in an immediate neighborhood that a convicted child molester is living nearby, there is nothing to prevent the offender from going elsewhere to commit his crimes--and in fact, that's exactly what many child molesters do, he says.

Ironically, the most dangerous sex offenders are essentially vagabonds who have no permanent address and hence are immune to public notification, while those who may be making a good-faith effort to resume normal, law-abiding lives are most adversely affected,' he added. Again, the answer lies in intensive, long-term supervision, Prentky believes.

Who will offend again?

The two studies use the same data set of 251 sex offenders released from the Massachusetts Treatment Center for Sexually Dangerous Persons between 1959 and 1985. Of that sample, 115 were child molesters who were not a family member of the children they victimized.

In the study of offender characteristics, Prentky, Knight and Lee examined the prison and criminal records of 111 child molesters. From information gleaned from those records, the team divided the sample into three groups: those who had recommitted sexual offenses; those who had recommitted other nonsexual offenses; and those who had recommitted any violent offense, including sexually violent crimes (there was overlap between the first and third groups).

Next, they examined the groups in light of 10 variables that other studies had linked to repeat offenses.

In addition to their findings on those likely to victimize children again, they found that child molesters who committed nonsexual crimes and violent crimes were much more likely to exhibit impulsive and antisocial behavior.

Clinicians can use the findings from this study by tailoring their assessment instruments for clients they suspect of molesting children, Prentky said. For example, they may want to target an in-depth set of questions to the person's possible degree of sexual preoccupation with and time spent around children, and another to deviant sexual behaviors and fantasies.

In the study of re-offense rates over time, the three researchers and David Cerce of Brandeis University, used a statistical method that examines the probability an offender will re-offend. The method, called survival analysis, takes into account the length of time an offender has been in the community.

In addition to finding a steadily increasing number of offenses the longer child molesters were out, the child molesters were 100 percent more likely than rapists to commit a new sexual crime by year 25, the team found.

Using the archives

The studies differ from others in a few key respects, says Prentky. For one, they relied entirely on archival data, rather than on direct clinical interviews or on data from the plethysmograph, a physiological measure of penile erection used to gauge sexual preference. As a consequence, clinicians and others in the criminal justice system may be able to use data from records alone to assess risk and not have to use more expensive and time-consuming procedures, he said.

The data are also more comprehensive than that used in other studies, Prentky said. To study offender characteristics, for instance, the investigators examined all the salient variables they could find in the literature.

And we conducted a rather meticulous search of the criminal record data--from five different sources--to pick up as many re-offenses as possible,' Prentky said.

In addition, the studies look at child molesters over a 25-year period, rather than the relatively short-term followup used in other studies, he said. 'If we had ended our study period at five years, we would have missed a large percentage of charges for sexual offenses of the child molesters in our sample,' he said.