The recent news of the arrest of Michael Devlin in the kidnapping of two children has many thinking about sex offenders once again. The term “sex offender” has taken on a life of its own these days, with media outlets eagerly recounting the number of kidnappings that happen each year and the thousands of people mandated to various sex registries. But there are a couple of observations that should be noted about the Devlin case and the many others:
1. Although it was initially reported that Devlin had been arrested for sex crimes in the past, this turned out not to be true. Perhaps this mistake was due to the public perception that such offenders always have sexual convictions in their past. Likewise, many people are now questioning how someone accused of such a terrible crime could go unnoticed for so long. Popular wisdom holds that sex offenders fit a certain "profile" but these leads me to the next point:
2. We don’t know much about sex offenders. Anyone who has done serious empirical research knows that federal grant money drives research. Neither the National Institute of Mental Health nor the Department of Justice sponsors serious funding on sex offenders. Some may say this is a good thing, given the numerous other priorities that these agencies must contend with; but the simple fact is that from a scientific perspective, we don’t know much. What we do know comes mostly from Canada, where the government has dedicated funding on sex offenders. And this leads to:
3. In ascertaining risk of recidivism among sex offenders, we know some things. Namely, we know that certain factors, mostly “static factors” (i.e., historical things that cannot be changed) account for the largest variance of risk among this population. These factors include: number of prior sex offenses, whether the victim is a family member of not, number of victims, sadism, whether the preparatory is married or single, psychopathy, and whether the victims were male. Many of these risk factors are common sense, perhaps some are not. The take-home point is, however, that in measuring risk in sex offenders is essentially measuring their deviance. The risk factors are historical, and hence, unchangeable. What that means for treatment seems obvious in many respects. That said, not all sex offenders are the same. Which leads to:
4. The sex offender label is a powerful one. I cannot imagine a worse label to have. And for those who engage in such reprehensible behavior, perhaps, deservedly so. But the label is being applied too broadly, I think. The man who kidnaps young boys ostensibly for the purpose creating a sex slave is different than the middle-aged female teacher that seduces her high school student. Both are guilty – not doubt. But equating the former with the latter is a mistake because in doing so, we have created a fiction whereby we forego what we know about sexual deviance (see point #3) in favor an entertainment menu that feasts upon the latest story of sex abuse. This distorts what is happening and prioritizes amusement over fact – something we shouldn’t do when children are involved. And finally:
5. If sex offenders are such a public threat (and I think there’s good evidence that many are), then the USDOJ should spend precious research dollars on understanding it. All sex offenders will not be given life-sentences and it behooves us to better understand how we can best manage the risk they pose to our most vulnerable. It’s time for us to put our money where our mouth is.