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IOWA: Study finds relapse in 3% of registered sex offenders.

December 2, 2000

Three percent of men and women listed on Iowa's sex offender registry committed new sex crimes during a four-year follow-up period, a state study shows.

The low conviction rate isn't statistically different when compared with the rate of sex offenders who were convicted before the registry law took effect in 1995.

The sex offenders who were not required to register had a new conviction rate of 3.5 percent over a similar study period.

A preliminary report on the study's findings was issued Friday to the Iowa Criminal and Juvenile Justice Advisory Planning Council.

Geneva Adkins, the primary researcher, said there could be several explanations why the rate of new convictions for sex crimes was so low.

All of these sex offenders have had involvement in the justice system and many have been required to participate in sex offender treatment programs, Adkins said.

Some may have been charged with a new sexual assault, but pleaded guilty of a different crime, such as burglary. In other cases, the original offense was a "one-time thing" and unlikely to be repeated, Adkins said.

She said in some situations, sex offenders may be committing new sex crimes, but they aren't being caught by law enforcement officers. There also may be a need for a longer follow-up of sex offenders, Adkins said.

Marion County Sheriff Marvin Van Haaften, a council member, said he was somewhat surprised by the study's findings. He strongly supports having sex offenders register with local law enforcement officials.

"Obviously, society feels best protected by sex offenders reporting," Van Haaften said. "It makes our citizens feel safer in their homes, and my home, too, and that's good."

The research involved a four-year follow-up of 233 people who were placed on Iowa's sex offender registry during its first year, between July 1, 1995, and June 30, 1996. They were compared with 201 people either released from prison or discharged from probation during the 12 months before the registration law took effect.

A majority of those studied were males, and more than 85 percent were white. Ages varied slightly between the study groups. All of those studied had been convicted of a sex offense classified as either a felony or a misdemeanor under Iowa law.

Adkins said the low rate of new convictions for sex crimes in Iowa is consistent with national recidivism trends.

When all types of new convictions were considered, including sex crimes and non-sex crimes, the recidivism rate was 24.5 percent for those who had signed up for the sex offender registry and 33 percent for the pre-registry group, the study found. "These differences in recidivism were not found to be statistically significant," researchers said.

The Iowa Legislature adopted the sex offender registry in 1995 in response to a federal law that threatened to withhold federal money if such action wasn't taken. Legislators said the registry would permit citizens to check the background of someone they suspect is a sex offender and that law enforcement officers would have a ready pool of suspects in the event of a sex crime.

Source: The Des Moines Register, by William Petroski