Sex offenders: 70% drop in recidivism rate

Study led by Professor Patrick Lussier shows significant decline in recidivism of sex crimes in Canada over 80 years

Encouraging news: between 1940 and 2019, the recidivism rate of sex offenders in this country has dropped by nearly 70%, according to a study published in the journal Criminology and Public Policy. Improved knowledge of sexual offending and training of criminal justice officials could explain these results, argues Patrick Lussier, a professor at the School of Social Work and Criminology and leader of the meta-analysis.

Over a two-year period, her research team surveyed the entire Canadian scientific literature on the subject. They reviewed 185 studies that had analyzed the recidivism rates of 226 groups of sex offenders across the country and over time, bringing the sample to 55,944 offenders.

The results showed that between 1940 and 1979, the weighted average recidivism rate was 23%, whereas today it is around 7%. Hence the drop to almost 70%.

"I don’t think we can attribute the decline in Canada since the 1970s and 1980s to any one law or measure; I think it’s a combination of factors," says Professor Lussier. The researcher points out that this dramatic decline began at least 20 years before the Canadian sex offender registry was established in 2004. "This non-public registry, which is essentially intended to facilitate the work of investigators, is not the cause of this drop; we must look elsewhere."

Greater expertise

Among the hypotheses raised in the meta-analysis, he mentions an improvement in knowledge to understand sexual offending, particularly the factors associated with recidivism. "When we better understand the contexts that lead an individual to reoffend, we may be in a better position to prevent recidivism and, obviously, to adapt treatment programs," suggests Professor Lussier.

He adds that there is greater collaboration between the correctional and academic communities, and that practice has evolved: practitioners are now trained. "There wasn’t even criminology in Canada before the 1960s," he says of his field of study, which looks at the causes and process of crime.

Probation and parole officers in those days were often retired teachers, ex-military, or police officers in career transition," he says. Today, however, we can turn to criminologists, psychologists, psychiatrists, sexologists, social workers... These professionals are found in detention facilities, penitentiaries, halfway houses and probation services.

"There is really an expertise that has developed to meet the needs of this clientele and work together to prevent recidivism of sex crimes."

Looking to the United States

The team continued its research and looked to the United States, where incarceration and long sentences are used to combat crime. There are also public registries of sex offenders, with their name, place of residence, even their place of work and a photo. A comparative study with the American situation is therefore forthcoming.

"We’ve started working with an American researcher. There will be other international collaborations. This is truly a project, an initiative that we intend to continue for several years to come," says Patrick Lussier, whose team developed the new research methodology.

The meta-analysis published in Criminology and Public Policy, of which Patrick Lussier is the lead author, is co-authored by Julien Frechette and Stéphanie Chouinard Thivierge of the School of Social Work and Criminology at Laval University, Jean Proulx of the Université de Montréal and the International Centre for Comparative Criminology, and Evan McCuish of the School of Criminology at Simon Fraser University.