The dark figure of sexual recidivism

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Empirical studies of sexual offender recidivism have proliferated in recent decades. Virtually all of the studies define recidivism as a new legal charge or conviction for a sexual crime, and these studies tend to find recidivism rates of the order of 5–15% after 5 years and 10–25% after 10+ years. It is uncontroversial that such a definition of recidivism underestimates the true rate of sexual recidivism because most sexual crime is not reported to legal authorities, a principle known as the “dark figure of crime.” To estimate the magnitude of the dark figure of sexual recidivism, this paper uses a probabilistic simulation approach in conjunction with the following: (i) victim self-report survey data about the rate of reporting sexual crime to legal authorities; (ii) offender self-report data about the number of victims per offender; and (iii) different assumptions about the chances of being convicted of a new sexual offense given that it is reported. Under any configuration of assumptions, the dark figure is substantial, and as a consequence the disparity between recidivism defined as a new legal charge or conviction for a sex crime and recidivism defined as actually committing a new sexual crime is large. These findings call into question the utility of recidivism studies that rely exclusively on official crime statistics to define sexual recidivism, and highlight the need for additional, long-term studies that use a variety of different measures to assess whether or not sexual recidivism has occurred.




Scurich, N., & John, R. S. (2019). The dark figure of sexual recidivism. Behavioral Sciences and the Law, 37(2), 158–175.

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