Sexual Offenders

Sex offenders are increasingly the focus of risk assessment and a variety of other legislative and clinical attempts at reducing sexual violence. A sexual offender is an individual who has committed a sexual act that involves the use of force or a threat against a nonconsenting person.

Sexual offenses can include a wide range of sexual acts against a wide range of victims. Increasingly, sexual offenders are the focus of a great deal of public attention and legislative reform. It is difficult to turn on the television news or search any national news source on the Web for an extended time without coming across a story about sex offenders. There are even regularly occurring television shows like To Catch a Predator that are devoted exclusively to catching a particular type of sexual offender, one who preys on children and adolescents over the Internet.

There are a number of different types of laws that have been aimed at reducing the significant problem of sexual violence. Registration laws require individuals convicted of prior sexual offenses to register their names, home addresses, and places of employment with law enforcement officials. These laws may be helpful in maintaining closer supervision, questioning, and solving sexual crimes. Notification laws inform the public of where a convicted sexual offender lives in order to reduce the risk to the general public or vulnerable groups. For example, some notification laws create a Web site the public may access to identify any individual in their community who is a convicted sexual offender. Some states have notification laws that result in local schools being notified of the presence of a sex offender in the area. Residency laws are more recent laws that limit the distance that convicted sexual offenders can live from vulnerable groups such as children. These laws may state that a convicted sexual offender cannot live within 1,000 feet of a school, day-care facility, park, or another location that children are known to frequent. An especially punitive and controversial type of law are the Sexually Violent Predator (SVP) laws that allow for the continued institutionalization of convicted sexual offenders after they have served their criminal sentence, based on the likelihood of their committing a future sexual offense.

These laws are making it increasingly necessary for forensic psychologists to improve the assessment and treatment of sexual offenders. A forensic psychologist routinely performs risk assessments of sexual offenders awaiting hearings to determine whether they are SVPs or of individuals awaiting sentencing after a conviction for a sexual offense. There are specially designed actuarial instruments for the assessment of sexual violence risk. One misconception frequently held by the general public that is incorrect (or at least questionable) is that sexual offenders are more likely to reoffend than are general offenders. In fact, research suggests that sexual offenders are less likely to be convicted of future sexual crimes and that only 17 percent reoffend within three years of their release from prison (Hanson & Bussiere, 1998). Forensic psychologists also assess individuals for the extent, severity, and nature of their sexual interests. One method used to assess sexual offenders is phallometric measurement (Marshall & Fernandez, 2000). A phallometric measure assesses a person’s physiological response (heart rate, perspiration, penile circumference) when he is exposed to a variety of stimuli that are typically sexually arousing or not sexually arousing. Some sexual offenders exhibit particular mental illnesses, called paraphilias, which forensic psychologists must assess for routinely. Paraphilias are generally characterized by sexual interest, fantasies, or behaviors related to atypical stimuli that are not normally sexual arousing. For example, an individual who becomes sexually aroused only while in the presence of children, or while receiving a common medical procedure such as an enema, may suffer from a paraphilia.

In addition to assessment, forensic psychologists are increasingly called on to treat sexual offenders. One of the primary purposes of SVP laws is to provide treatment for those sexual offenders who are most at risk to reoffend if released from prison after they have served their criminal sentence. One could argue that SVP laws are similar to the movie Minority Report, starring Tom Cruise. Cruise’s character arrests people before they murder someone, based on the psychic visions of three individuals who can supposedly see these murders before they happen. Sexual offenders institutionalized under SVP laws are theoretically being treated so that they can be rehabilitated and released in the future, after their risk has been substantially reduced. However, the evidence regarding the effectiveness of sexual offender treatment programs is mixed. Hanson and Bussiere (1998) suggest that untreated sexual offenders reoffend at a higher rate than do treated sexual offenders. However, one of the most sophisticated studies examining the effectiveness of sex offender treatment programs suggests that these programs are not effective at reducing risk among sex offenders (Marques, Wiederanders, Day, Nelson, & van Ommeren, 2005). Researchers have made some advancement at identifying the factors that are most likely to relate to successful treatment programs, and this research holds promise for improving the overall effectiveness of programs designed to treat sexual offenders. The question remains, though, whether our current efforts to treat and assess the risk of sex offenders put us in an eerily similar position to that in Minority Report.