Friday, October 11, 2013

SVP Risk: Challenging “Likely to Reoffend"

“…existing research indicates the vast majority of sex offenders, including those with a relatively high sexual recidivism risk, can be safely managed in the community.

Dr. Grant Duwe
Research Director, MN DOC

With those words and supporting research, Grant Duwe has made it more difficult to justify sexual offender civil commitment (SOCC). Duwe is the Research Director of the Minnesota Department of Corrections – the source of most of the SVP clients at the Minnesota Sex Offender Program (MSOP). This new research [1] might provide the strongest empirical evidence to date that the gateway into SOCC should be a little tighter, and the exits out could safely be a little wider.

Duwe’s research briefly stated: Duwe administered the MnSOST-3 to 105 men under SOCC at MSOP (about 15% of the census). He applied the results to data from other recidivism studies to arrive at an estimated rate of future reoffending (assuming SVPs were immediately and unconditionally discharged). The outcome projected that, after four years, about one in ten men would reoffend. Using extrapolation and the more sensitive measure of arrests, rather than convictions, Duwe estimated that over ten years (an additional six years) one more SVP in ten would reoffend. When he extended his estimates out over 50 years (effectively the lifetime for most offenders), he determined that in the subsequent 40 years another 10% would reoffend, for a total 50-year recidivism rate of 30%. Duwe concluded that, in their lifetime, seven in ten released SVPs would not reoffend.

When he applied the same data to the higher threshold of conviction (rather than arrest) rate, he determined, in their lifetime, four out of five (82.4%) SVPs would not reoffend. He went further in making adjustments for guys[2] who had reoffended but not been arrested, and still determined the overwhelming majority of SVPs in the sample would not reoffend.

Duwe’s research projects lifetime recidivism (re-arrests) of 28%, but notes that with estimation error and a CI of 95%, 50-year (lifetime) recidivism has a lower bound of 21.4% and an upper bound of 35.7%. With some measure of successful treatment, applications of RNR principles, and prudent post-release monitoring and supervision, Duwe’s research supports a lower actuarial risk of SVP reoffending than widely believed. On an individual basis, some dynamic variables may be mitigating, while others could be aggravating. Still, at face value, this outcome calls into question one of the fundamental criteria for SOCC: establishing “likely” or “highly likely” to reoffend.[3] This question of semantics was at issue in a recent case before the Minnesota Court of Appeals. [4]

With the controversies swirling around the use of certain diagnoses to establish the “mental disorder” requirement for SOCC, concerns about the dynamic nature of “volition,” and indications that most actuarial risk tools tolerate a high level of false positives, Duwe’s research further confounds efforts to sustain a sound empirical basis for SOCC.

Other recent research supports the contention that actual recidivism for SVPs is much lower than public perception or other actuarial predictions. In 2012, Robin Wilson, Jan Looman, and their colleagues published research [5] reporting 3.2% - 5.5% recidivisms for recently released SVPs. The study had a short follow-up period (2.5 years), but in that time, 14 of 253 (5.5%) men released from the Regional Treatment Centre [6]had reoffended, and only one out of 31 guys released from the Florida Civil Commitment Center had reoffended. The offenders in the Wilson et al. (2012) study were selected for their completion of treatment, but the results indicate that reoffending for these SVPs are consistent with low rates of sexual reoffending found in other studies.

There are some SVP recidivism data published in the annual surveys of the Sexual Offender Civil Commitment Programs Network (SOCCPN). Not all SOCCPN members contribute data to the annual survey, and the compiled results have an anecdotal quality to them, but with about 17 of 20 SVP states reporting outcomes, the annual surveys of programs have some empirical basis. The 2011 Annual Survey reports that 75 more men had been fully released and there was no reported sexual or non-sexual recidivism. The 2012 Annual Survey reported that four clients were known to have sexually reoffended out of an apparent total of 159 discharges. The latter survey did not indicate the time period for which those four clients had been released.

In a 2011 review of SOCC in the state of Virginia, it was reported that, of the 78 clients on conditional release since the program’s inception in 2003, three (4%) have reoffended.[7] The same report cites SVP recidivism rates ranging from zero to five percent in six other states. The Virginia report indicates that some reoffending was of a technical nature, further illustrating some of the problems with recidivism data. Even with some ambiguity around outcome data, it would seem reasonable to conclude from these studies that there is a low incidence of sexual recidivism, even among SVP clients.

In the interests of accuracy, there is research reporting much higher rates of sexual reoffending among certain groups of sexual offenders, but if it is older research, it may simply be outdated. From 1990 to 2002 the three year reconviction rate for sexual offenders in MN dropped from over 16% to under 3%. [1]   More recent research from the MN DOC reveals a four-year reconviction rate of 2.8%,[8] which is consistent with data from other states.[9]  With some actuarial risk tools able to distinguish risk factors that correlate to reoffending, some sexual offenders can be determined to be at higher actuarial risk for reoffending, but the point remains that sexual offending and reoffending has dramatically declined in the last two decades,[10] and the data herein indicates that trend appears to also hold for high-risk sexual offenders.

Duwe raises important questions about public polices with regard to sexual offending and the cost of crime control. Actuarially, if ten guys were released from MSOP today, four years from now nine of them will have not reoffended. Is that acceptable risk management? Some would argue that reducing sexual abuse at any cost is in the public interest, but public officials have a responsibility for cost-effective public safety. With the 2013 cost of SOCC in Minnesota, Duwe’s research supports the contention that actuarially, the public cost of preventing one in ten SVPs from reoffending over four years is $4,750,000. [11]

With 95% of all sexual offenses being committed by first time offenders [12], sexual abuse professionals agree that we need to do a lot more on the side of preventing first time offenders. Is it a good allocation of public funds to spend $4.75M to try to stop one known offender from possibly reoffending?  It seems investing $4.75M in broad sexual abuse prevention efforts might save a great many more future victims from harm.

Given public intolerance for any incidence of sexual offending, a prediction of one in ten guys reoffending over four years will not sit well with many. Duwe’s estimate of “only” three in ten SVP clients reconvicted over 50 years may be of little comfort to the general public, but the courts, in their need to reconcile “likely” to reoffend, may take another view of this research.

Those that have been following the MSOP saga know that there has been only one guy that has remained conditionally released out of almost 700 clients over nearly 20 years. No one has ever completed the treatment program and, if current conditions hold, clients are far more likely to die at MSOP than be released. [13]  This description is not to lay blame on the doorstep of MSOP, but rather to illustrate the overwhelming sense of hopelessness faced by MSOP clients, and a mandate for MSOP staff made ineffectual by unresolved competing interests. SVP programs elsewhere in the US face comparable challenges.

The oldest SVP program in the US, in the state of Washington, was under federal oversight from 1994-2007.  In 2012 the federal courts also intervened in Minnesota, certified all clients at MSOP to be part of a class-action lawsuit, and signaled that immediate changes are needed.  Some changes are in the works, but the executive and legislative branches of Minnesota’s state government would be wise to recognize the opportunity to take stock of Duwe’s research.

Duwe has provided empirical support for a more effective balance between prudent public safety and effective management of SVPs. His report is consistent with recommendations found in the 2011 report from the MN Office of the Legislative Auditor, and with the December, 2012 report from the MN SOCC Advisory Task Force. To be sure, not all the clients at MSOP should be immediately released into the community, but Duwe has documented that there is every reason to believe that the low base rates for sexual offending broadly, would also inure to SVP programs.

Principles of Risk-Need-Responsivity have empirical support for guiding the treatment and management of sexual offenders; there’s every reason to believe it would also be useful to guide SOCC. Courts might be able to use the option of a judicial stay of commitment or order less restrictive alternatives, when appropriate - perhaps community-based residential programs or outpatient programs as in Texas and other states. Outpatient or aftercare programs can track SVPs with active GPS, to help ensure public safety. Good supervision and monitoring combined with proven support programs such as Circles of Support and Accountability offer alternatives to secure detention for SVPs.

Duwe has quite credibly documented that a majority of the clients at MSOP could be safely managed in the community. If those who currently control SOCC in Minnesota and other states ignore the relevance of Duwe’s compelling research, it is quite likely that the state and federal courts will not.

Jon Brandt, MSW, LICSW

Note: Dr. Duwe has given permission to publish his email address if readers have questions about his study or would like a copy of his research:

[1] Duwe, G. (in press). To what extent does civil commitment reduce sexual recidivism? Estimating the selective incapacitation effects in Minnesota. Journal of Criminal Justice; online 7/5/2013.

Abstract: This study examines the selective incapacitation effects of civil commitment on sexual reoffending among 105 Minnesota sex offenders who were civilly committed between 2004 and 2006. The Minnesota Sex Offender Screening Tool-3, a sexual recidivism risk assessment instrument, was used to estimate what the four-year sexual recidivism rate would have been for these offenders had they been released to the community. Integration of Survival with Quality of Life (iSQoL) software was used to extrapolate the survival curves over a 50-year period to develop a lifetime sexual recidivism estimate. If the 105 civilly committed sex offenders had been released to the community, an estimated nine percent would have been reconvicted of a new sex offense within four years. Civilly committing these offenders therefore likely reduced the overall four-year sexual recidivism rate by 12 percent. The results further suggest that if these offenders had been released to the community, an estimated 28 percent would be rearrested for another sex offense within their lifetime. To better align the costs of civil commitment with its public safety benefits, states operating these programs should emphasize the use of intermediate alternatives in the community for a more positive return on investment.

[2] There are over 4,200 men in SVP programs in the US and appear to be fewer than ten females (SOCCPN, 2012); male pronouns and references are not only appropriate, but because virtually all sex offender studies have male cohorts, some studies may not be valid with females. Some guys enter SOCC directly from the juvenile system, before they get a chance to be “men.” More than 50 guys at MSOP do not have an adult sexual offense.

[3] Assuming statutory recidivism risk estimates are intended to be absolute (rather than relative).

[4] In Re: the Civil Commitment of Cedrick Scott Ince.

[5] Wilson, R. J., Looman, J., Abracen, J., & Pake, D. R. (2012). Comparing sexual offenders at the Regional Treatment Centre (Ontario) and the Florida Civil Commitment Center. International Journal of Offender Therapy and Comparative Criminology XX(X) 1–19.

[6] Canada does not have SOCC; the Regional Treatment Centre is for treating higher risk offenders.

[7] Review of the Civil Commitment of Sexually Violent Predators (2011). Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission, Commonwealth of Virginia; November 14, 2011.

[8] Of the 1,653 sex offenders released from Minnesota Prisons between 2004 and 2006, 47 (2.8 percent) had been reconvicted of a new sex offense within four years of their release from prison. (Duwe, 2013) at p. 14.  Among the 220 sex offenders released from prison during the 1990s, by the end of 2010, 41 (18.6 percent) had been reconvicted of a new sex offense. Among the 261 referred offenders who were not committed, 17 (6.5%) were reconvicted of a new sex crime within four years. Of the 1,392 offenders who were reviewed but not referred, 30 (2.2%) reoffended within four years. (Duwe, 2013) at p. 15.

[9] Recidivism among sex offenders in Connecticut, State of Connecticut, Office of Policy and Management, Criminal Justice Policy & Planning Division, February 15, 2012; at p. 5.
In 2005, 746 offenders who had served a prison sentence for a least one sex-related offense were released or discharged from prison. Over the next five years:
· 27 (3.6%) of these men were arrested and charged with a new sex crime.
· 20 (2.7%) were convicted for new sex offense, and
· 13 (1.7%) were returned to prison to serve a sentence for a new sex crime.

[10] Jones, L.M., Finkelhor, D., & Halter, S. (2006). Child maltreatment trends in the 1990s: Why does neglect differ from sexual and physical abuse? Child Maltreatment, 11, 107-120.

[11] Duwe estimates one SVP in ten would reoffend in four years. The cost of keeping ten SVPs at MSOP for four years at a per diem of $326, for FY 2013 (, would be calculated at: $326 x 365 x four years x 10 SVPs = $4,759,600.

[12] Sandler, J.C., Freeman, N. J., & Socia, K. M. (2008) DOES A WATCHED POT BOIL? A Time-Series Analysis of New York State’s Sex Offender Registration and Notification Law; Psychology, Public Policy, and Law, 2008, Vol. 14, No. 4, 284–302.

[13] At least 24 guys have died at MSOP (SOCCNP, 2012), furthering clients’ perception of endless therapeutic goals that don’t credibly lead to release.

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