WASHINGTON, DC – Today, The Sentencing Project released a new report, “Responding to Crimes of a Sexual Nature: What We Really Want Is No More Victims,” examining research-based statistics and information around crimes of a sexual nature (CSN) that contribute to both the rise in imprisonment rates and the lengthening of sentences. The report offers recommendations for reforming our responses to crimes in this category.
“Sexual violence in America is a systemic social problem, but, government responses that favor excessive prison sentences neither address the root causes of crimes of a sexual nature nor repair harm,” said Kristen Budd, Ph.D., Research Analyst with The Sentencing Project and author of the report. “The misdirection of limited resources toward extreme punishments restricts resources that could go toward prevention.”
According to the report, policy changes enacted since the 1990s have subjected individuals convicted of crimes in this category to not only increased use of incarceration, but also longer sentences. Individuals convicted of CSN are serving, on average, a greater percentage of their prison sentences compared to incarcerated individuals sentenced for other crimes that are classified as violent, such as murder.
In addition, racial disparities within the U.S. criminal legal system extend to punishments for CSN. While 70% of people arrested for rape and other sex offenses in 2020 were white, people of color were sentenced to prison at a rate that was two to three times as high as white individuals.
The brief also highlights multiple findings about CSN.
Low recidivism rates: Recidivism rates for CSN in the U.S. have declined by about 45% since the 1970s. Research shows that when individuals with this conviction do reoffend, it is typically with a non-CSN.
Traumatic histories: Many individuals who have perpetrated CSN – including those in the youth population – report substantially higher levels of childhood trauma, including physical, verbal, and sexual abuse and emotional and physical neglect, compared to the general population. While not an excuse for CSN perpetration, severe trauma-histories provide much-needed context that is often missing from public discussions and proposed solutions to CSN.
Crimes of a sexual nature occur mostly among people who know each other: Evidence reveals that crimes of a sexual nature are rarely perpetrated by strangers. In a Bureau of Justice Statistics report tracking arrests for sexual assault in 20 states, 87% to 96% of people arrested for a CSN were known by the victim.
The “Responding to Crimes of a Sexual Nature: What We Really Want Is No More Victims” report also provides a set of recommendations that hold individuals who commit CSN accountable, while advancing public safety, reflecting science-based research, and accounting for mitigating factors and an individual’s capacity for change.
The suggestions include:
- Investments in prevention and intervention programming that works to reduce CSN and treat the underlying causes of CSN should be prioritized. Relying on established evidence about CSN and those who commit it to inform policy responses rather than fear-driven misinformation.
- Sanctions should not be “one size fits all.” This category of crime includes a broad range of criminalized behavior, such from consensual sex between youth to forcible rape. Each of these behaviors carries with it varying levels of criminal culpability and prison sentences should reflect that.
- Reform efforts to create a fairer criminal legal system should not exclude people convicted of CSN. CSN should not be carved out and it should be afforded the same opportunities for sentencing relief as other offenses when lawmakers consider legislative reforms.
The report, “Responding to Crimes of a Sexual Nature: What We Really Want Is No More Victims,” can be found here.